April 23--More than 150 attendees gathered in Plymouth, Michigan (April 17-19) for the 15th convening of the Automotive Laser Applications Workshop (ALAW) organized by the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association and the Laser Institute of America. This year's meeting was significant because it marked the last one for ALAW creator Frank DiPietro, who retired as chairman at this event. Further significance was the expansion of ALAW this year to include a full day of sessions on sheet metal fabricating.
Over the three days at the Inn of St. Johns attendees heard presentations by 38 industry experts and practitioners, viewed the product offerings of 25 suppliers, and attended open houses at BLM Group USA, Fraunhofer USA, and TRUMPF.
Deviating from past ALAW meetings, this year's laser presentations did not feature body-in-white (BIW) applications, a subject that is a major industrial laser market. Instead the speaker's panel looked at remote welding systems and laser brazing equipment for sheet metal joining, with an emphasis on BIW. A full session of power train component processing was new to the program. Either by coincidence or design the major underlying thrust seemed to be the rising importance of fiber, disk and diode lasers for automotive applications.
Examples of current and developing applications seemed to reinforce the decreasing importance of high-power CO2 and rod type solid-state lasers for on-line cutting and welding operations, due to energy efficiency, space limitations, and throughput considerations.
Among the subjects drawing substantive interest was one reported by Vancho Naumovski of Optical Engineering/Utica Enterprises who showed a current application for remote welding of an instrument panel component at Toyota. He stated that there are currently 51 systems in place for this application, four in North America, and that Toyota has plans to raise this to 100 on similar parts within the next three years. Attendees had an opportunity to see the newest version of this system employing a robot-manipulated fiber laser head at Fraunhofer.
Berthold Hopf of DaimlerChrysler reported on the RobScan installation at Mercedes Benz where 18 disk laser powered remote systems weld door components for the new C class sedan. Axle Luft of Thyssen Nothelfer GmbH also showed new systems for welding components for the Opel Vectra, Audi Q7, Chrysler Sebring convertible, and the Citroen crossover vehicle. These, along with laser brazing of VW body components and doors report by Torsten Jackel of Volkswagen were the most applications oriented of all the presentations this year.
A session that looked at the future for lasers in automotive was a first, and three speakers, Russell Hensley (McKinsey & Company), Stan Ream (EWI), and Klaus Loeffler (TRUMPF) independently arrived at the same conclusion, that the flexibility of lasers offers the auto industry exactly what will be needed in the dramatically changing supplier landscape.
The 15th ALAW conveyed two major messages; remote laser welding will become a wider spread application and the lasers for this and other welding applications will likely be high-power fiber, disk, and/or direct diode. Not because the supplier industry wants it but because the users are ready for these new laser technologies to improve energy efficiency, reduce floor space, and to improve process throughput.
ALAW organizers have scheduled the 2008 meeting for May 13th in response to requests to avoid competitive international conferences.