Testing new waters Down Under

Australian auto industry looks to benefit from lasers, information sharing

The FABRICATOR November 2002
December 12, 2002
By: Hafiz Mohd

Capitalizing on the latest laser and information sharing technology, theAustralian auto industry is working to achieve critical mass within itsdomestic market and to take advantage of the opportunities offered bye-commerce.

The Australian auto industry appears to have shrugged off global economic uncertainty to boost sales of new cars and trucks to 772,681 units in 2001, a 1.8 percent jump from 2000, according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI). The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS, www.abs.gov.au) said new motor vehicle registrations rose above the market expectation of 2.5 percent.

The Australian automotive industry is viewed by the Asia-Pacific region as a research and development location with established infrastructure, a quality work force, technical ability, proximity to Asian markets, and accessible raw materials. Global players also recognize Australian worker skill bases and the long history of using varying CAD/CAM technologies that provide further opportunities in the design sector.

Australia's competitive advantages include having flexible production lines that allow for rapid tool changeover; optimizing capital equipment costs; strong supporting industries such as tooling, services, design, and engineering; testing equipment; and availability of light metals and other raw materials.

Besides power steering pump design, the Australian auto industry specializes in producing air-conditioning compressors and power steering pumps. Furthermore, Australia exports a range of components, including engines, braking equipment, wheels, driveline components, seating, transmissions, air-conditioning equipment, and friction material (brake parts such as pads, disks, rotors, and calipers). Automotive design and training services also are rapidly expanding areas of activity.

Australian authorities also have capitalized on its prime light metals manufacturing location. Combined with downstream processing expertise and an innovative automotive infrastructure, these light metals—aluminum and magnesium—are mined and refined locally and die cast into original equipment parts such as engine heads, transmission cases, front suspension parts, wheels, and brake systems for local and overseas customers.

Investment in Australia's car manufacturers continues with a recent establishment of a V6 cylinder plant, as well as significant invigoration of research and development facilities. Coupled with a tooling industry that heavily invests in CAD, machinery technology, manufacturing facilities, and communications, the automotive sector is striving to ensure it remains at the forefront of technological developments.

Additionally, Automotive Training Australia (www.automotivetraining.org.au) is the national industry training advisory body for the automotive industry, with responsibility for training in the automotive vehicle manufacturer; original equipment component producer; and retail, service, and repair sectors.

Fuel Injection Systems

Bosch (www.bosch.com.au) is at the forefront of electronic petrol fuel injection (EFI) system technology. Its EFI products are used by nearly every vehicle manufacturer around the world and include a range of fuel pumps, injectors, and oxygen sensors. The latest generation of Bosch fuel injection systems uses high-performance microelectronic control circuitry with expanded functions.

The Motronic MED7 system is designed to combine fuel savings with reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to provide lower running costs and a more environmentally friendly engine. Benefits include increased maximum output with more torque compared to engines of similar size and configuration.

The onboard diagnosis tool is designed to provide easier vehicle maintenance. Economical components for fuel injection—whether for regular-fuel or diesel engines—could not be manufactured without laser processing. Conventional welding methods would not work with the required high-carbon and high-sulfur steels, because they would produce fissures.

For example, a steady pressure of more than 100 bar is required in the high-pressure injection valve of the Bosch direct-injection system for regular fuel. Eight laser welds are applied to ensure that the different steels are joined without distortion and to maximize the benefits of high-strength steel.

The laser beam is focused to cause the material to melt at the target point. Above a certain energy density, a vapor capillary forms in the material, and the depth of this capillary can be adjusted between the micrometer and the millimeter range. The beam control guides the capillary through the workpiece. Behind the welding point, the metal flows together and resolidifies. Two materials can be welded so that the adjacent workpieces overlap each other; the vapor capillary penetrates both materials and creates a joint.

Laser welding technology helps materials researchers because it can be used successfully with the high-sulfur machining steels or high-carbon steels indispensable for high-pressure applications in fuel injection systems, for which conventional methods often are not as effective.

In laser spot welding, the simple beam guidance, combined with the energy output, can be focused on extremely small areas to create electrical contacts. This improves the strength of copper contacts, compared to that of conventional solder joints, in a control unit plug.

Another joining technique is high-speed laser welding, in which the workpiece is guided past the stationary laser in the assembly line and the contacts are created as it moves. This process is a hundred times faster than soldering. In addition, the contacts are lead-free, and the noncontact process generates almost no stress on the fragile components.

A goal of Bosch research is to focus the laser beam even more precisely on the tiny target area to prevent damage to immediately adjacent, sensitive components such as magnets, electrical parts, or plastics. The laser is providing sufficient reserve capabilities to create ever-smaller structures in the future.

Laser Drilling Applications

Fuel injection components are very sensitive to contamination by particles. Laser drilling can be used to produce filters that are integral to the component and contain several hundred holes with diameters of 50 to 100 micrometers.

In this application, accuracy requirements are not very high, so the beam of an Nd:YAG laser is focused directly on the material. The resulting vapor capillary penetrates the material explosively—at the rate of 300 holes in five seconds.

If greater precision is required, the process engineers use shorter laser pulse durations. The nozzle orifices of the high-pressure injection system must be smaller than 100 micrometers and shaped with precision. This is because the flow of the fuel into the combustion chamber significantly influences the combustion process and, therefore, the fuel consumption of the vehicle.

In helical drilling, a laser beam focused to 30 micrometers cuts its spiral path to create a 70-micrometer hole. Pulsed at a rate of several thousand pulses per second, the laser successively nips tiny particles off the material. The short laser pulses ensure that the portion of material that melts, and is unwanted, is small.

Future applications of laser technology will benefit because the workpiece would not have to be moved with respect to the laser—instead, an intelligent and adaptable beam shaping and guidance system will support flexible manufacturing processes.

As the efficiency of lasers increases, the operation of these machines is becoming much simpler. Diode-pumped Nd:YAG lasers are expected to yield efficiencies of 30 percent compared with only 2 percent with flash lamp-pumped lasers. With the flash lamp-pumped system, 98 percent of the energy represents a power loss in the form of heat that must be dissipated.

Maximizing Information Exchange

Core laser technology is not the only area in which the automotive sector is looking to improve efficiency and performance. In particular, the automotive industry relies on just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing. JIT puts pressure on all points of the supply chain to reduce inefficiencies in transportation, processing, inventory, and other business processes.

To facilitate JIT, the automotive industry is developing a fast and reliable communications network so that the key stakeholders—manufacturers, suppliers, importers, and dealers—can share information. This is called the Australian Automotive Network eXchange (AANX, www. aanx.com.au). It is an industry-driven initiative supported by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, Federation of Automotive Products Manufacturers (FAPM, www.fapm. com.au), and the Motor Trades Association of Australia (MTAA, www. mtaa.com.au). The four major car manufacturers—Ford, Holden, Mitsubishi, and Toyota—also are involved in the initiative.

AANX operates as a virtual point network (VPN), an Internet-based infrastructure that allows users to send data to each other in a reliable and confidential manner. A VPN requires collaboration between companies on standards and protocols—in particular those concerning security, as the network will be used to transmit business-critical and competitive information.

Currently AANX is used to send CAD data files, but in the future it will be able to handle a range of media, such as product management systems, electronic data interchange (EDI), file sharing, and other information feeds.

Combining resources to create a single automotive industry network for Australia will reduce efforts and complexity on various sides. It also is designed to deliver shared benefits such as consolidated network links; reduced operating costs; lower acquisition and maintenance costs; faster business cycles; improved supply chain communications; rapid application deployment; and simpler rollout of future technologies, service quality levels, and standards-based technology.

A pilot project that began in September 2000 with partial funding from Australia's National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE, www.noie.gov.au) Information Technology Online program now has been completed. AANX is satisfied that the network has reached sufficient stability to serve the needs of the Australian automotive industry for the secure exchange of confidential, high-volume, and time-critical data. AANX is now being moved into preproduction.

AANX also is designed to enable Australian companies to tap into the global automotive networks and thus boost export opportunities and import efficiencies. These networks include North America, Europe, Japan, and Korea. Global connectivity among these networks is under discussion.

The chief obstacle is incompatibility of business models, with the North American Network Exchange evolving into a commercial venture while the other networks currently remain industry-funded communities of interest. In the meantime, AANX is working to achieve critical mass within its domestic market and to position the Australian automotive industry to take advantage of the potential offered by e-commerce.

These new technologies in laser and information technology promise to mark a critical milestone for competitive production in the region.

Hafiz Mohd

Contributing Writer

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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