Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2002   by Auto Service World

Canadian Engine Rebuilder: Head Games

The Technology of the Cylinder Head Has Evolved, and the Engine Remanufacturing Industry Must Evolve With It.

The simple reality is that machine shops are finding it is harder to justify the time and cost of repairing some cylinder heads entirely in-house. Too many engine types, too many idiosyncrasies, and too few rebuildable cores have forced shops to seek alternatives.

The situation has been brewing for a number of years and has resulted in the emergence of companies that specialize in producing aftermarket cylinder head castings and performing high volume repairs.

A combination of factors has led to this situation, says Albert Mammarella Jr. of Albatross Auto-motive Ltd., a Uni-Select member in Brampton, Ont. “In the cylinder head market it is becoming more and more difficult to get the cores. And the cylinder head to block finish is becoming much more difficult to attain, too,” he says.

“Before, you could resurface a head with a belt sander; now it’s becoming much more difficult and much more important.” Mammarella says that the challenges go beyond just ensuring a straight, flat surface. Many heads, especially those using multi-layered steel (MLS) gaskets, require a surface finish that is often difficult (if not impossible) to achieve within many conventional shops. His shop has switched to CBN cutters and the accompanying machinery to achieve the appropriate surface finish, at substantial cost, he adds.

Getting the right surface finish and straightness may be possible if machinists are skilled and well equipped, but even the best can’t provide a quality head rebuild if a core is unavailable and the existing casting is broken beyond repair.

“The cores are harder to fix,” says Mammarella. “Much harder to fix,” he repeats to emphasize his point. “Now they have machining tolerances unlike before. More and more of these engines, specifically the imports, have little additional material. Basically, you have to buy new heads in order to get them to the standards that the OEs demand.”

The fact is that many machinists are faced with the choice of purchasing a new head from an OE source, which can put the cost of the job out of reach for the customer, or repairing a head that they know in their hearts will still be a questionable solution. Added to this equation is the proliferation of engine models that keep all but the most popular problem heads–those of the ill-fated Ford 3.8 ilk–in the category of one-offs, with their accompanying short-run cost and quality problems. Too many shops are faced with too many heads for the first time to ever get truly comfortable with repairing them.

No doubt, many a machine shop owner has warranty nightmares, both figuratively and literally as a result.

“Most of the newer heads require intense, fine detail work,” says Ed Terrill, owner of manufacturers agency Terrill & Associates, which specializes in engine parts, and represents Futur Cylinder Head of Montreal, Que. as well as a number of parts suppliers. “It’s just not feasible for many shops.” The proliferation of engine types that he has seen over several decades in the industry has played a critical role in the development of the cylinder head market. If you don’t do it on a production basis, you’re just losing money, he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of tooling required, let alone the cost of the heavy equipment. It’s intricate work and you’re probably not making profit unless you’re into it on a real production scale to keep your costs in line.”

He says that sourcing everything from castings to fully assembled heads–all of which can be done–isn’t just the domain of the small custom rebuilder. Even larger shops take this approach when the condition or availability of cores demands it.

“For any shop that is a head specialty shop, if any head requires a reasonable degree of intense work, it’s just advantageous to ship it out or buy one on an exchange.”

Paul Plebanek, sales manager for Top Line Automotive, says that this development has led them to expand their offerings in the cylinder head marketplace, to the point of embarking on a venture with a New Zealand-based supplier.

“The thing about a lot of the new heads is that there’s not a lot of material. You can only weld them up so many times and have a reliable repair. And the whole process can be such a nasty deal,” says Plebanek.

The good news of recent years is that the method of casting heads has changed and the technology is now far more accessible to the aftermarket.

“Before, machines used to have a drill bit that would cut the mold and it would take forever. Now they’re cutting them with lasers and using all kinds of computer controls that burn molds more quickly, more economically and more accurately.”

Plebanek says that the increased accessibility of the manufacturing process–it still requires million-dollar machines, but this is a huge reduction over previous methods–combined with the high cost of new heads through the original equipment service network (the dealer) has made the aftermarket cylinder head market feasible.

“It’s the nature of the business today. If I can sell a head for $129 (U.S.) new, it doesn’t pay to rebuild one. You practically eat up that cost just setting up the machine.”

It may be counterintuitive in some ways, but outsourcing may actually improve turnaround time.

According to Michael Esar of Universal Cylinder Head, Montreal, Que., turnaround time has been another important factor in the market’s growth. “You can have it on the shelf the next day,” he says. “The more we go with the motorcycle technology, with its smaller clearances and smaller valves, the more it’s in the realm of the specialized shop.”

He says that the reality of the economics, and its acceptance as a profitable way to conduct business, is not complete. “It’s still gaining acceptance. If somebody knows what they are doing, they can still repair it themselves. But on the more complicated models, like so many of the overhead cam heads, just the cost of changing the valves and guides makes it less expensive to buy a reman head.”

Esar says that many of the better shops have already worked through the process and know when to buy and when to fix. “They don’t want to waste their time on a complicated, damaged head. They don’t want to tie up somebody for a whole day on one head. They know that it’s a lost more cost-effective for them not to.” But not all shops are in this category. As a result, he says, they may be missing out on the quality windfall.

“When you’re in mass production, you get to know the product also. You get to know where they’re going to crack and, nine times out of 10, what is going to happen. It becomes a habit.”

Quality’s flip side is, of course, warranty. Many shops understand all too well the costs of the latter, but wrestle with the consistent application of the former.

Ideal Supply Company, a NAPA associate based in Listowel, Ont., is one of the few machine shops with an ISO quality designation. Kim MacKenzie, corporate machine shop division manager, says that one of the important aspects of that ISO designation is that, in addition to the quality that it can impart to the finished products, it also allows for an explicit understanding of the process and costs of achieving it. For MacKenzie, it is the economics, not the capabilities, that dictate the approach. “We import new castings and purchased the Royal Cylinder Head business, but would go outside if a head was too time-consuming, or didn’t make sense because repairs were too substantial,” says MacKenzie. “The OE market is expensive, but sometimes we don’t have a choice but to go that way if the customer wants it.

“We’ve got all that in place (as part of the ISO certification), but our process still requires us to go back to the customer and ask what they want us to do.”

In addition, there are a great many issues regarding the quality of repair that can be guaranteed–good welders just aren’t that plentiful–and this has to play a role in a machine shop’s decision making.

With the ISO tools at hand, he can do just that. He says that the best piece of advice he could offer other machine shops is that it is critically important to know where your c
osts lie. He says he knows how much it costs to have someone lay a hand on a cylinder head, and can make decisions about which route to go as a result.

More and more machine shops across Canada are finding that it often makes sense to act more like suppliers of quality cylinder heads, and a bit less like rebuilders. For a well-equipped machine shop with a skilled workforce, it makes sense to fix what it can, but shop owners need to know when to draw the line and scrap a casting rather than spend good time after bad.

It may not sit well with the desire of many machinists to act like professional craftsmen, but when economics dictate a hands-off approach, it only makes sense to look for alternatives.

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