Laser systems for automotive applications

Harderwijk, The Netherlands -- The headquarters of one of today's important system integrators for the automotive industry, AWL-Techniek B.V., is located here in this former Hansa city. In the Late Middle Ages, Harderwijk and other cities dominated trade along the shores of Northern Europe.

The company itself has roots dating back to 1965, when it started out as a small business serving local industry with system solutions primarily based on resistance and arc welding. Today, AWL builds systems for all major European suppliers to car manufacturers and has a strong lead in the automotive seating market.

In 2003, AWL introduced laser welding, which today accounts for 60% of the integrated technologies in its projects. Although there is a strong focus on the automotive industry, AWL still values projects in general industry.

AWL laser welding in action

China facility

To ensure good global coverage, AWL has a production facility in the Czech Republic, and in 2013 opened a new facility in Wuxi, China. Additionally, the company recently formed a strategic partnership with JR Automation Technologies in Holland, MI.

The reason for opening a facility in China, says Marlous van de Wiel, communication professional at AWL, was that many of the company's customers have fully fledged branches in China, where they are very interested in AWL know-how and expertise. In addition, the platform strategy of modern-day car manufacturers is becoming more global, meaning multiple models of an OEM are built on the same platform and are usually manufactured locally.

AWL customers must be able to supply and locally manufacture uniform components across the globe, without compromising the quality of their products. With a facility in China, AWL is able to supply multiple and, in terms of quality, identical machines backed by local service and support. To ensure one global standard, all facilities use the same procedures, processes, software, and hardware, and all employees are trained at the head office in Harderwijk.

AWL laser hybrid welding

Continuous improvement

At AWL, in the recently dedicated R&D department, technology manager Wouter Zweers explains that R&D at AWL is about crossing borders using open innovation and striving to enable its customers to use state-of-the-art technologies in reliable machines. This department cooperates closely with customers, institutes, universities, and suppliers, allowing them to develop and implement high-end technologies, application expertise, and machine integration knowledge. This expertise, together with the results of the company's own research projects, is rolled out in AWL as a continuous improvement process.

The equipment available to the R&D department consists of the full range of joining technologies that may be integrated into production machines. Beside laser-welding-based systems, AWL is experienced in developing systems for resistance welding, arc welding, plasma welding, and adhesive joining. Other important areas are machine design, advanced robotics, and control systems.

Currently, systems are built for production of automotive items such as seats, seat tracks, and body components. For the general industry, systems are built for production of a broad range of products ranging from industrial fencing to racking to ice skates.

Welding automotive parts

One of the special competencies at AWL is the design and manufacturing of fixtures for welding automotive parts, where quality is crucial for high-volume production. AWL's fixtures ensure end-product quality and ease of adjustment when configuring the welding process. In addition, good spatter protection, unloading assistance, and nest intelligence are some advantages of these high-end fixtures. The fixture portfolio ranges from manual welding to laser welding fixtures. According to AWL, when it comes to fixtures, integrated design is the decisive factor for success.

Tolerances achieved by proper clamping and fine tuning of the fixtures to compensate for deformation due to the thermal process are smaller than 0.3 mm. If needed, the tolerance can be as small as 0.1 mm. All this enables robust and reliable production for customers.

In many of AWL's projects, the company has developed and integrated a laser beam switch management system, where two robots share one laser source, and the beam switches from one optic to the other such that the laser source is fully utilized.

Another popular welding cell configuration involves robot-guided remote laser welding that incorporates laser beam manipulation by a large industrial robot and a laser scanner head. The large reach of the robot is combined with the high dynamics of scanner mirrors in the welding head, resulting in improved process efficiency and productivity for the customer. In-process monitoring using vision systems and special sensors control the welding process and guarantee the quality of the laser-welded product. This can also be combined with product traceability.

Recently, AWL finished the development of a special laser welding cell for car seat tracks. This cell enables the reliable production of non-overlap joints, resulting in an improved joint design and a weight reduction of the assembled component by a choice of material and optimized part design.

Design

In the engineering department, a group of more than 90 degreed engineers uses 3D CAD systems to design all components for building production systems. This involves the structure of the production cell, including electric and pneumatic design as well as welding fixtures and logistic systems. At the same time, a robot simulation is performed to ensure smooth and quick installation and commissioning of the machine.

Suppliers of lasers, robots, and hardware are selected depending on customer preferences and AWL's extensive experience. The closed-loop communication link between engineering and assembly ensures a short lead time and high quality machines.

In less than 25 years, AWL has grown from a small local player to a global partner. The organization continues to expand its activities and maintains a leadership position in laser welding.


Martien H.H. van Dijk, llcconsultancy@planet.nl, is an editorial advisor to Industrial Laser Solutions.

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