Will the auto industry drive the next laser growth spurt?

Making it in the automotive industry has always been seen by industrial laser suppliers as an endorsement of ...

Still maneuvering into a key market

Making it in the automotive industry has always been seen by industrial laser suppliers as an endorsement of their products’ use in difficult manufacturing operations. From the 1979-80 Nissan, Toyota, and Honda installations of three-axis laser trim line die cutters and the 1979 GMC truck and bus welding of bus roof panels, every victory was hard-won, and notable setbacks like the now infamous 1973 Ford purchase of an underbody welding system were devastating to a nascent industry.

Then successes, spectacular at the time — such as the 1986 Volkswagen installation of a laser/robot system for online cutting of air conditioning ports, and the 1980s replacement of electron beam systems with high-power lasers at Ford Transmission — buoyed the industry as the increasing usage of then-called “unconventional” process gained acceptance by a tough-to-please industry.

I presented a first-time view of lasers in the automotive industry at a 1988 meeting in Stuttgart, and since then I have tracked their penetration into the auto industry, reporting on this periodically in ILS and at many international conferences. Over the years, the number of new annual installations increased to a peak in 2006 when about 75 significant installations of high-power lasers for welding were made in OEM plants. Since then, annual installation locations are around 30-40 per year.

Counting only installations at OEM automakers and their Tier One suppliers, I estimate at least 3000 industrial lasers are being used for welding and cutting operations in global auto plants. Considering that in 2011 more than 60 million cars were made by 37 companies, with 24 of these making more than 500,000 and the top eight making more than three million each, the number of laser installations is not that large — leaving room for lots of expansion.

China took the top spot in 2011 with more than 14 million cars built last year, in a low-growth year for auto sales in that country. We don’t have a good handle on the use of high-power lasers in the Chinese auto plants, but we speculate that it may be at a lower level than in Western countries. With the cost of labor increasing in China, one could expect a move to more automated — and laser-oriented — manufacturing. Europe, on the other hand, seems to be in a bit of a muddle right now as reports of slipping sales are appearing due to the dismal economic situation. North America had a good year as the economy brightened and the US automakers returned to profitability.

Volkswagen, a well-documented laser processing innovator, has moved up to number two as a carmaker, just 900,000 cars behind GM which regained the number one slot. VW has a policy of standardizing auto production in all its global plants, so a laser installation in Germany would be replicated in South Africa, etc., which is great for laser sales.

The top eight automakers operate about 500 plants worldwide, so recent laser applications spreading throughout the industry, such as the spurt of roof-to-side wall joining operations, can ratchet laser sales up quickly.

The pot of gold that attracts laser suppliers is the potential for laser spot welding to replace the current resistance spot welding process. Replacing thousands of resistance spot welders with lasers could be a marketer’s dream. Hand- or robot-held, lightweight, fiber-delivered laser energy sources have been introduced and may be the forerunner of laser replacement of the resistance welding process.

David A. Belforte
belforte@pennwell.com

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