By David A. Belforte
It started out as a curiosity, morphed into background information for a paper and eventually became an obsession. The subject: a project called "Laser Firsts in the Auto Industry." During the 2000 Automotive Laser Applications Workshop (ALAW) it was noted that many attendees had been involved, in one way or another, with significant events in the history of lasers in the auto industry.
This prompted a cursory review of published references, which became rather unwieldy, so I decided to start a database. The easy way to sort the data was by date, and so a chronological list developed.
The references were not comprehensive and some known important events were missing. An e–mail request was sent to industry sources that likely had more details. The returns formed the basis for a second and third mailing to other industry sources at all the world's auto companies. Each contact was asked to identify, by date, a laser installation that represented a first at their company. This was later modified to include laser firsts on any individual vehicle model. As the database neared completion, it was sent to contributors for final additions and corrections.
To date, more than 80 people representing many of the laser and systems suppliers and most of the world's automakers, have assisted in the compilation. In return, they received a copy of the most recent database, a document that probably will not ever be published, as thanks for their help.
Reviewing the data, it became apparent that, counter to perceptions of the auto industry's reticence to high–technology manufacturing solutions, quite the opposite was true. When looking at the data on welding and cutting installations, certain patterns appeared. From this, a paper on the auto industry as a laser technology driver was presented at last August's Global Automotive Laser Applications conference. More detailed information, received since then, reinforced this premise and a more definitive presentation on the subject will be presented at ALAW this year.
Here's a condensed list of the laser industry's response to an auto industry's welding needs, with the date of the first installation in parenthesis: high–power CO2 lasers, eventually to 12 kW, for transmission component welding (1976); five–axis flying optic system for blank welding (1981); butt welding of galvanized steel sheet (1983); on–line welding of roof to pillars (1985); rolling wheel and pressure foot part clamping (1986/87); multiple thickness and mater ials tailored blanks (1989); body–in–white welding speeds to 10 m/min. (1991); articulated arm beam delivery of kilowatt CO2 beams (1992); high–power CW Nd:YAG lasers for on–line body–in–white welding with fiber delivery (1993); hybrid laser/ induction welding (1997); aluminum spaceframe welding (1998) and remote spot welding (1999).
Cutting applications also led to technology firsts: on–line body customization with laser/robots (1986); pickup truck floorpan customization with laser/robots (1990); five–axis flying optic systems for prototype cutting (1994); hydroform tubing cutting with laser/robots (1996) and arm–mounted laser robot cutting (1998).
The current list includes 352 "firsts" (214 welding and 138 cutting). These are installed in the various plants of 25 major auto companies and their Tier 1 and 2 suppliers, located in 19 countries around the world. The list is still being added to.
What started as a casual and entertaining exercise has turned into a major record of one industry's impact on industrial laser technology. You never know what you'll find until you start looking.