As automobiles become more technologically advanced, the cost of collision repair and the expertise required to restore new vehicles have skyrocketed.

So says Mark Woirol, project manager of Allstate Insurance Co.’s Tech-Cor Applied Research Center, which works with auto makers, insurers and collision-repair specialists in an effort to make vehicles more damage resistant and repair methods more cost efficient.

Today’s repairs are “much more difficult,” Woirol says. “There are about 45,000 collision shops out there, and the tooling you need to purchase is very expensive. But you need it if you’re going to make a quality repair.”

To boost safety and improve fuel economy, auto makers today are turning to lighter-weight materials, such as high-strength steel and aluminum, making it more difficult for repair technicians to work effectively, he says.

The rapid introduction of advanced componentry, which can be damaged during collisions, further complicates the repair process, challenging collision centers to devise repair techniques that are less intrusive and more cost-effective.

Woirol says the best way to develop solutions is to work with the auto makers early in the product-development stage. “We try to have conversations with auto makers in advance of the car getting to the point of manufacturing, preferably in a computer-aided design or clay model.”

While Allstate’s Illinois-based Tech-Cor works with nearly all OEMs from time to time, it has an ongoing relationship with Ford Motor Co. The auto maker recently opened a new facility, called the “Paint and Body Technology Center,” which concentrates on developing vehicle designs and structures that can be replaced or repaired for significantly less cost.

The Inkster, MI-based center is funded with $650,000 from collision repair, equipment and service suppliers. These partners, along with Allstate and other vehicle-insurance companies, are collaborating with Ford to provide repair recommendations early in a vehicle’s development.

“We’re now able to prepare repair procedure manuals in advance for all of our new vehicles,” Mark Albrant, Ford’s customer service engineering supervisor, tells Ward’s.

“This effort saves insurers repair costs, so they can reduce consumers’ auto insurance premiums. At the same time, repairs can be done with safety-approved procedures that ensure the vehicles’ quality is restored.”

Albrant says Ford has been conducting similar research in an undisclosed location since 2002. The first vehicle to benefit from Ford’s work is the redesigned ’09 F-150 fullsize pickup, which uses a number of new materials, including ultra-high-strength steel and boron. While the materials make the truck safer, they also make collision repair more costly.

“The big thing on the F-150 was we were able to develop front- and rear-frame sections so you could remove certain sections and put in a new piece,” he says, rather than the entire frame.

Partial-frame repairs cost at least $2,000 less than full-frame replacements and can save damaged vehicles that might otherwise be declared “totaled” based on some state repair laws.

During the ’09 model’s development phase, the frame-repair procedure was “put through durability testing and passed,” Albrant says. “Our goal is to have a cost-effective repair, but also ensure we can return (a vehicle) to pre-crash condition.”

Ford says its ongoing work in repair technology has placed four of its cars and trucks on Insure.com’s “Top 10 Least Expensive Vehicles to Insure,” which bests its competitors.

Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. in 2008 reported Ford had more vehicles that ranked among the least-costly to insure than any other auto maker.

Reduced repair costs can be an enticing incentive for consumers, Albrant says. “Not only does it save on the cost of ownership, but you also get quality repairs. It is a consideration in purchasing a vehicle.”

Ford intends to share the knowledge gained from its Paint and Body Technology Center with its worldwide operations.

bpope@wardsauto.com