Five decades of laser light in automotive

In this International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, as designated by the United Nations General Assembly, the photonics industry has joined together to announce the importance of light and optical technologies in our lives. Our sister publication Laser Focus World is playing a leading role in this Year of Light—a role not envisioned when they started 50 years ago in 1965.

Ten years from that date, Ford Motor Company made a daring move: the use of a high-power CO2 laser to weld together stampings to form the underbody of a new, "quiet" 1976 Torino. For reasons including the infamous oil embargo that crippled the US auto industry, this car was canceled and the entrance of laser welding into body-in-white manufacture was set back.

Flash ahead 10 years to 1985, when BMW used a 5kW CO2 laser to weld the roof of the new 3-Series touring car—perhaps the first body-shop welding application in the world.

Ten more years and Audi used solid-state lasers to weld the roof and C-pillar on their new A3 series. Also, in 1996, BMW used CO2 laser robots to weld roof-to-side seams of the new 5-Series.

Over the next 10 years, the auto industry seized on lasers as a viable welding tool and several dozens of installations occurred: Volvo used a solid-state laser robot to weld galvanized roof panels of the V70; GM used laser-welded tailored blanks for the body side panels of the 2002 Buick Rendezvous; and Daimler Chrysler installed the first North American remote laser welding system to make spot welds in the rear door of the Jeep Liberty.

In the past 10 years, led by new laser technology, Peugeot/Citroen used 6kW disk lasers to weld seams on the doors and the C-pillar of the Peugeot 3008 and 5008; Mercedes used disk laser welding to join the doors and sidewalls of a new E-Class; and Chrysler used diode lasers to braze roofs to the side walls of its Chrysler 300C. The fiber laser is also appearing on the automotive assembly floors, welding the aluminum underbody of the 2014 Corvette (30 years after the Ford failure), while Volkswagen uses the fiber laser seam stepper to weld the VW Golf body.

So, where are we heading with this? Almost all of the many hundreds of automotive laser applications arose when a new body or platform was being introduced—lasers are rarely chosen as a substitute for installed traditional welding. Volkswagen's new engineering platform will allow standardization of parts in as many as 29 plants by 2018. Toyota is also standardizing platforms, as the two automotive giants fight it out to be Number One. Toyota's laser screw welding, first used on the 2013 Lexus IS, can seal three welds in either steel or aluminum in less than 1 second compared with more than 2 seconds the old way. To me, the timing looks right for what may be the decade of photonics in automotive manufacturing.

David A. Belforte
belforte@pennwell.com

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