A tempest in a (former) seminary

I'm seated in the main hall of a former Catholic seminary in Plymouth, Michigan, now called the Saint John's Conference Center. It's a sprawling complex of brick-walled, marble-floored, tiled-roof buildings, reminiscent of structures in Spain..

There are 200 or so attendees at this year's Automotive Laser Applications Workshop (ALAW), sponsored by the University of Michigan (see the February issue of ILS). As the conference winds down I'm organizing my notes on this eventful meeting,

No one in the audience, expected the battleground over fiber lasers versus other industrial lasers would occur in this quiet environment at a conference that focuses on the profitable use of lasers in automotive applications. Certainly not Frank DiPietro who planned a session entitled "Emerging Laser Technologies: Disk vs. Fiber vs. Diode" to acquaint potential users with the advantages of these lasers.

I should have had a clue when a knowledgeable industry observer stopped me in the corridor prior to the opening session asking if I "had heard the big news." And after receiving a vague and cautioned "what news?" he teased me by saying, "wait till tomorrow."

Tomorrow, it turned out, offered the rather explosive news from Klaus Loeffler that Volkswagen had decided on the disk laser as the welding energy source for the next generation of body-in-white applications at VW (see page 15). Loeffler even surprised me, not because of his statement from the podium, but because I expected to talk with him about this issue later in an exclusive interview that had been pre-arranged. Some attendees at this year's EALA meeting in Bad Nauheim, Germany, who had already heard of VW's decision reported that a heated exchange took place, on the conference floor, between advocates of each technology.

Loeffler's comments precipitated the buzz among people lunching, in the beautiful atrium of the conference center. Talk seemed to center on how vitriolic the afternoon's Emerging Laser Technologies session might be. I can't recall having seen attendees rush back to their seats to attend the afternoon session in the 12 years I've participated in ALAW.

Maybe it was the Holy Spirit still resident in the halls of St. John's; more likely it was the calming influence of session chairman Paul Denney (EWI Inc.) who had the task of presenting an overview on the three laser technologies, an assignment that he accomplished in an exemplary manner. And credit is also given to the three proponents who spoke about their respective technologies. Each did an excellent job of sticking to the facts, outlining choices, and identifying potential applications. Our hat is off to Bill Shiner (IPG-Photonics), Tim Morris (TRUMPF Inc.), and Mark Zediker (Nuvonyx Inc.) for contributing positively to the education of ALAW attendees.

What generated all the anticipation and gossiping? For many months, at various conferences around the world and in a number of publications, the prospect of high-power fiber lasers as a replacement for high-power Nd:YAG and CO2 lasers was promised by outspoken advocates of the fiber laser technology. Cited as the driver was the auto industry, and by inference Volkswagen. Knowing that VW was testing these lasers, and hearing unsubstantiated positive results, led many to believe that use of this laser technology by VW was a foregone conclusion. Therefore Loeffler's remarks came as a shock to many. However, in our interview Loeffler identified advanced versions of the fiber laser, currently under development, for subsequent applications at VW.

So the peaceful, stained-glass windowed conference hall at St John's turned out to be the site of a watershed in industrial laser technology. Who knew?

David A. Belforte
belforte@pennwell.com

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