Marginal: Who Cares?

Columns From: 5/1/2002 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

 I don't want to come off as a scold.

 I don't want to come off as a scold. But I fear that I will. That's because I am concerned about something that auto companies based in the U.S. aren't doing. And I think it is wrong. The general statement is this: They're not doing a good job of using what might be considered an "advanced technology" here, but what is increasingly the status quo in other parts of the world, particularly Europe. Let me explain. I recently attended the 10th annual Automotive Laser Applications Workshop held by the University of Michigan's College of Engineering. And as presentation followed presentation, it became extremely evident to all of the people there that lasers are being widely used in European body shops, at places like Volvo and Volkswagen, on vehicles that aren't necessarily exotic, but often bread-and-butter platforms (e.g., the VW Golf). Meanwhile, back in the States, the resistance spot welder still holds sway. And what's more, while U.S. assembly plants may have a CO2 laser here or a YAG-wielding robot there, the Euros are moving ahead on initiatives including deploying remote laser welding systems and direct diode lasers. To be sure, an argument can be made that either (1) such technology will soon be implemented here or (2) that's just not the sort of thing that is being considered now due to prevailing financial considerations.

Soon is better than never, but now is better than later. The competition doesn't wait.

While I have no particular brief for lasers, I am convinced that they can greatly contribute to the design and production of better vehicles. Design because they allow the creation of structures that can't be economically made with other processes (e.g., one-sided access is all that's needed, not two as in the case of the clamp-like spot-welding gun). Production because they facilitate greater flexibility than spot welding equipment (e.g., hard tooling isn't necessary, so program changes can accommodate various vehicle configurations). And there are other benefits, such as making vehicles that are stiffer yet lighter. I know that some of you will point to your SUVs with laser-cut hydroformed frame rails or your vehicles with body panels produced from laser-tailored blanks. Yes, it's true. Such applications are proliferating. And I know that others of you will remember situations wherein a laser was installed in a body shop and then taken out because the [fill in your own agitated adjective here] thing didn't work.

The competition doesn't care.

Let me provide some information that was part of a presentation prepared by Dr. Wolfram Rath of Rofin-Sinar Laser GmbH (Hamburg, Germany) that ought to give every domestic automotive executive pause—long pause. According to Rath, Volkswagen has been testing remote laser welding (essentially bouncing a high-quality beam off of mirrors that then, in turn, focus the beam on the work, such that there is a distance as far as five feet between the mirror and the work). The researchers show that while it takes three seconds to make a spot weld (weld, move to next position), it takes just 1.6 seconds per spot with a robot/laser combination. Good, right? Well, that's sluggish compared to the speed that the remote laser welding setup permits: 0.5 seconds per spot. So what would lend itself to a smaller, faster, assembly operation?

Lasers aren't germane to all of you. But lasers aren't the point of this. They are what I suspect is a symptom. A symptom of the lack of implementation of advanced but appropriate technology by a whole range of people, whether they're designers, product engineers, or process engineers. Sure, there may be good reasons why this is so, from a lack of awareness to a lack of funds. There may be bad reasons why this is so, which is generally summed up by either "we don't do things like that around here" or "I remember we tried that once and it didn't work."

The customer doesn't care.