Industrial laser suppliers could benefit from auto giants' new expansion plans

Updated: A flurry of production expansion announcements by several global auto manufacturers could spell more business for industrial laser system suppliers.

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A flurry of production expansion announcements by several global auto manufacturers could spell more business for industrial laser system suppliers.

The automotive industry has been a major adopter of industrial lasers for decades (albeit a feast-or-famine relationship), with roughly 3000 industrial lasers installed for a variety of operations: cutting and welding body and roof panels, welding diesel injectors and airbag initiators, remote laser welding for vehicle seats, laser welding batteries for electric vehicles, micromachining fuel injectors, laser joining the car key assembly, and laser brazing for joints, to name a few. (The Volkswagen commercial below cleverly compares laser seam welding vs. spot welding.)

This week, four five major global automakers -- Toyota, Daimler, General Motors, and Chrysler -- have announced expansions involving facilities in North America and Europe:

-- Daimler has handed Finnish supplier Valmet Automotive an order for "more than 100,000 units" of its A-Class compact car to be produced from 2013-2016. The company says it has received more than 40,000 A-Class orders to date, straining its plants in Rastatt, Germany, and Kecskemét, Hungary to full utilization (the newer A-Class has been built at Rastatt since July 2012). Market launch for the new cars is slated for mid-September of this year. Valmet already is a long-term supplier to Daimler through its roof manufacturing business in Germany and Poland.

-- Chrysler Group plans to invest $198M in one of its plants in Detroit, MI, to build its 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine, a higher-power, more fuel-efficient engine already used in 11 models in its Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep brands, accordingtolocalreports.

-- Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc. (TMMC) says it will invest $100M to increase production of Lexus cars at its facility in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, the company's only Lexus production outside of Japan, hiking capacity from 74,000 vehicles to 104,000 by 2014 (its overall Canadian output will now exceed 500,000 vehicles per year), including 15,000 of its RX450 hybrid electric vehicles. Since February the company has announced a total of $745M in investments in the US and Canada.

-- General Motors of Canadasays it will invest $850 million on R&D efforts in Canada from the period 2009-2016. Efforts will include expanding work in light-weighting materials, mechatronics, software, and communications. Among specific goals will be to invest in advanced technology research at its Canadian Engineering Center in Oshawa, Ontario, and deepen technology development with Canadian universities and institutes, suppliers, and manufacturers in (undefined) "key technology areas."

Updated July 26: And now Volkswagen is adding to the mix, opening its new plant in Eastern China ahead of schedule with annual production capacity of 300,000 vehicles. Output will begin with the Polo model, and later adding ŠKODA models. VW is probably the largest user of lasers for welding and brazing -- starting with the Golf model in 2005-2006, where the carmaker installed over 500 solid-state laser systems in every Golf assembly plant around the world. VW also used industrial lasers back in the mid-1980s to cut air conditioning ports.

It is not known precisely if or how each of the companies will incorporate existing or new industrial laser processing technologies in these expansion plans. However, here's what we do know:

  • Daimler is a major user of laser welding on various Mercedes Benz models (the C-Class holds the record for total length of laser welds). On the A-Class, Daimler is known to have used laser cutting and laser welding for a variety of components: cutting/welding the gearshift dome, cutting contours and holes, and laser welding for automatic shaft alignment via camera system and welding apparatus feed, shift finger feed, and reinforcing ring via bin and feed handling.

  • Chrysler pioneered laser welding of transmission components, air conditioning parts, and random other engine accessories such as shock absorber and motor mount components. It is not immediately clear whether any of these are employed in the Pentastar V6 engine.

  • Toyota uses laser-welded blanks for various body components. It also uses laser welding for the side ring and spot welds various subassemblies.

  • GM is known to have used laser welded blanks for the B pillar (the vertical support between driver/passenger windows) and other applications at its Oshawa facility.

Global automakers' continued adoption of lasers for industrial applications, particularly in growing regions such as China (14 million cars built in 2011, in an off year for them), continues to be a major growth opportunity for industrial laser suppliers. These new expansions by global auto giants could very well be an extra boon to those suppliers and to the industrial laser system market.

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Mercedes-Benz A-Class. (Source: Daimler)

(Car/coin image via Shutterstock)

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