Laser joining in the spotlight

Over the past month, I’ve had two extended discussions about fiber laser welding in the automotive industry with interested investors.

May 1st, 2018
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Opportunities for lightweight auto parts available in near-term

Over the past month, I’ve had discussions about fiber laser welding in the automotive industry with interested investors. Curious, because this is a specific subject that rarely comes up from that sector, except once in a while around quarterly-earnings report time when the CEO of a leading fiber laser company mentions it.

These conversations were wide-ranging, so when I was asked about laser welding in small-vehicle assembly plants, I had an opportunity to speculate on the future for welding in general in the auto industry. I won’t go into details of my appraisal—however, a portion of my remarks dealt with the automotive industry’s increased use of non-ferrous and non-metallic materials in vehicle body-in-white (BIW) and light truck bodies.

I speak with a modicum of authority on this subject based on past experiences trying to introduce laser welding to intransigent automotive manufacturing and production engineers—before that, I pushed programmed TIG welding, and before that, articulated resistance spot welders.

That automotive manufacturing world has changed for the better, as a new generation of body engineers, driven by onerous government requirements for fuel economy, seem to be free to consider aluminum, lightweight steels, and non-metals such as engineered plastics and composites.

Plastic body components are now used all over the auto world, even on premium cars like Audi, an early aluminum body user. The automaker is now using a carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) rear panel as the largest component in the occupant cell of the new A8 sedan.

Heresy in lightweight trucks—an aluminum F-150 pickup truck bed at Ford, the recipient of an expensive pro-steel bed advertising campaign by Chevrolet—is being followed by GM’s 2019 GMC Sierra Denali carbon-fiber composite cargo bed. Do I sense some hypocrisy here?

Don’t throw in the towel, welding enthusiasts—the future has a far-away horizon and there are a lot of tough, lightweight steel parts in BIW designs in the near-term. But a caution—other than some current work on aluminum or steel to composites joining, most non-metal body parts are mechanically joined or bonded.

And there is still replacement for body resistance spot welding being pushed by IPG Photonics. I had this in my sights long before fiber lasers came on the scene because the sheer number of on-line resistance spot welders that fiber lasers could replace (3:1)—some say at least several thousand per year—supports a nice piece of fiber laser business.

The theme of this issue is laser welding, so Vijay Kancharla and colleagues at IPG Photonics introduce laser beam wobbling as a solution to some difficulties in welding aluminum and copper (see article). Laser welding monitors, coupled with machine learning methods, can improve process results, writes Mark Rodighiero of AMADA MIYACHI AMERICA (see article), and Ian Jones of Laserweld Plastics explains the pros and cons of laser joining polymer materials (see article). In a bit of a twist, Kenneth Vartanian and Pascal Pierra (Optomec) seize on process definition as it applies to additive manufacturing (see article), and Evgeny Molchanov (Rena Solutions) leads us through the rejuvenation of the Russian laser market (see article).

Although welding—a very part-specific process—now represents <20% of all industrial laser revenues, it is fertile ground for high growth rate in the coming years, as evidenced by the features in this issue.

David A. Belforte
belforte@pennwell.com

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