Polishing is a finishing process for smoothing out a surface with an abrasive. For example, the VIS-Polish manufactured by VIS Service Automation is an automated wheel polishing system that restores aluminum truck and bus wheel rims.

Figure1 – Wheel Polisher

According to Robert Beare, VIS director of market development, oxidation and exposure to sand and salt can turn aluminum rims dull and gray, and it can take up to three hours to polish one rim by hand. The machine can polish six rims in three hours.

The machine cuts, colors, and compound shines aluminum wheels to a mirror finish by sanding the whole wheel face or just sections using sectional sanding software and a special bead-blast cleaning cycle.

Operator involvement is limited to loading the machine, changing sanding and polishing media, and initiating the PLC-controlled robotic polisher. The best part: wheel polishing can generate up to 60 percent gross profit.

Technically, polishing is a cutting process (smoothness) whereas buffing is less aggressive and leads to a mirror bright finish. For example, in the ‘70s, various factors caused the finish on cars painted with acrylic lacquer and enamels to dry into a bumpy surface resembling the texture of an orange peel.

One method to correct orange peel was to block sand the paint smooth with ultrafine wet sandpaper. Next, polishing compound was used with a rotary buffer to resurface and improve reflectivity of the paint. Next, wax was applied and the paint was buffed to a bright shiny finish.

Today, vehicles are coated with clear coat paint that doesn’t contain pigment. However, just like paint, clear coat is prone to fading, oxidation, and environmental hazards and needs to be protected.

The most common way to protect vehicle paint is to apply a coat of natural or synthetic wax. Hand waxing helps prevent contaminants from reaching the paint surface but is removed over time by repeated washing, rain, wind, and UV. Most over-the-counter waxes will hold up for about 60 days.

Commercial car washes offer an array of water-soluble products including siliconized soaps to condition paint, online waxes to protect and four-step paint sealant. Typically, online products provide up to 30 days of protection and are priced between $4 and $5.

Figure 2 – Buffer and Dryer System

Shown (Figure 2) is a buff-and-dry device that can be installed after the air driers to wipe dry residual water droplets and gently buff the paint. However, polishing and extended paint protection is beyond the capabilities of commercial wash bays.

One place motorist can obtain these services is new car dealerships which offer their customers premium vehicle paint protection programs through their aftermarket department.

For example, Friendly Honda located in Poughkeepsie, NY, offers their customers an Auto Butler’s 5-year paint protection warranty with follow-up program.

Auto Butler is a two-step re-application program. First, the surface is prepared with a high-grade cleaner/polish to remove dirt and industrial contaminants. Next, paint sealant is applied to protect paint against degradation caused by environmental hazards and UV.

Figure 3 – Rollover Vehicle Polisher

Friendly Honda uses an automated car polisher manufactured by Broadway Carwash Equipment Company to perform this two-step process. Broadway’s “rollover” machine has 20,000 soft, cloth-like fingers working paint protection products into the vehicle. The machine polishes with uniform quality and consistency every time with no streaks, swirls, or burns. One operator can turn out up to 25 cars per day.

Retail cost for a five-year paint program is usually between $400 and $600. According to one auto dealer, monthly cost for the machine, training, point-of-purchase displays, and supplies needed for 40 applications is around $3,400.

So, if the dealer sells 10 programs a month, the cost is $340. If 20 units are sold, cost is $170 and so forth. The theory is customers will come back to the dealership every six months to have a reapplication. Arguably, another benefit is customers saving $4 to $5 in extra online services every time they visit a car wash.

Over five years, a $500 program would cost the customer an average of $8.33 per month. So, the online conveyor product has a lower price but it does not provide a limited warranty against paint damage.

As for polishing, a rollover polisher cannot remove orange peel, scratches, blemishes, or occlusions in paint. However, it can correct light paint marring, light oxidation, and swirl marks and produce a brilliant shine.

Figure 4 – Express Polish Tunnel

Online wax and total body protectant applied at the car wash can produce some shine and smoothness but most benefit comes from the hydrophobic (water beading) properties these products impart on vehicle surfaces. A relatively new approach to automated vehicle polishing is the express polishing tunnel as shown below.

In principal, the concept is simple. Once a vehicle has gone through the wash tunnel with a special wax package, it is dried and a spray wax is applied at the polishing tunnel entrance. The vehicle then goes through the conveyor polishing tunnel that is outfitted with specially designed polish cloth.

According to the owner of Loogman Car Wash in The Netherlands, the birthplace of the express polish tunnel, one to two employees can process 30 to 50 cars an hour. Loogman says the result is an amazing shine in several minutes that adds value to the consumer and a significant new profit center for the car wash.

In the final analysis, profitability of automated vehicle polishing is no different than any other value-added product or service. Revenue depends on personal selling and market penetration. For example, smaller-market dealerships that sell 100 or fewer new and used cars per month would need a 15 percent to 20 percent penetration to make a rollover polisher a profitable product.

On the other hand, new-car dealers that grab customers and take them out to do a hood demo can run up to a 30 percent penetration rate. According to Loogman, 25 percent to 30 percent of his customers buy the polish service at a price of four Euros or about $4.50 to $5 U.S.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises – Consulting Services (www.carwashplan.com). You can reach Bob via e-mail at bob@carwashplan.com.