“Lightweight construction plays to the strengths of laser processes”

Jenoptik reports excellent results for 2016. The automotive sector contributed to this. In this interview, Mathias Wolpiansky, head of Laser Processing at Jenoptik, talks about lasers in automotive production, the role of optical technologies in the development of efficient drives, and the opportunities and challenges associated with the future trends of autonomous driving, electromobility and Industry 4.0.

Mr. Wolpiansky, where does Jenoptik currently see the revenue drivers for laser systems in the automotive industry?

Mathias Wolpiansky: We distinguish three general areas: interiors, exteriors and bodywork. For interiors, the main revenue driver is airbag perforation. Here we use lasers to perforate the back of the instrument panel so that it can be relied upon to open in an emergency. We have a patented process for this that essentially creates a predetermined breaking point. The advantages of using lasers for this is the seamless process monitoring by sensors and the hundred percent traceability. The residual wall thickness is precisely specified and documented in the process. By perforating the rear wall there is no visible seam. And through the use of ultrashort pulse lasers, the process also works with organic materials such as leather, where it’s important to precisely regulate the heat that is applied.

Which laser processes are successfully used in exteriors and bodywork?

Wolpiansky: In exteriors we primarily deal with plastic fenders, which we receive already painted. We use lasers to cut openings for ultrasonic and night-vision sensors, and a laser welding process is used to mount supports for these sensors on the rear of the fender. The revenue driver here is the fact that, in the interests of lightweight construction and material efficiency, plastic fenders are continually getting thinner, which makes it impossible to use mechanical processes such as punching. Last year, our solution to this problem earned us the SPE Automotive Innovation Award. Lightweight construction is also the innovation and revenue driver for bodywork. Here we are dealing on the one hand with the 3D laser processing of ultra-high-strength steels and, on the other, with the processing of new materials that are increasingly making their way into large-scale production applications. These include, in particular, structural parts made of die-cast aluminum, which we process using our lasers. Using lasers here increases productivity, and they are sufficiently flexible for large-format 3D processing. We are also looking at fiber composites as a possible future market.

Jenoptik wants to expand its leading position in optical production measurement technology for engine and transmission components. Are you also addressing the topic of electromobility?

Wolpiansky: Of course! We agree with our customers in the automotive industry that we are facing a disruptive change. Just how quickly it will happen is hard to predict, but it is clear that conventional combustion engines will gradually be replaced by hybrids, purely electric and fuel cell drives. We are dealing intensively with the issue of the impact this change will have on production measurement technology. Electric drives are nowhere near as complex as combustion engines, but the design of the interiors may become more complex instead, which could entail new tasks for lasers in production and increased demand for optical measuring methods. Lightweight construction is also becoming more important, which plays to the strengths of laser processes. We are looking into all these issues and preparing ourselves as best we can for the impending change.

This change also includes autonomous driving. Does this represent an opportunity for the photonics industry?

Wolpiansky: Safety will remain a major issue in this area. A wide variety of sensors are needed to reliably monitor the vehicle’s surroundings. Distance sensors, camera systems, night vision or recognizing other vehicles, pedestrians or animals on the road. It is also conceivable that there will be sensors monitoring the interior, detecting the number of passengers and possibly also monitoring their bodily functions. When the vehicle is being driven autonomously, there’s otherwise no way of noticing if one of the passengers has a medical problem. There are still a host of open questions in this regard for which photonics—with its combination of lasers, optics and electronics—can provide answers.

This combination is also a key to Industry 4.0. What challenges does your company face on this issue?

Wolpiansky: We are already generating a wealth of data with our laser systems, such as laser power, cutting speed, media feed and consumption, on/off cycles and much more. The challenge is to make this data productive for our customers. This data needs to be used to link autonomous systems at a higher level and to optimize how customers’ operations are organized. We`re dealing intensively with organizing the data and will implement our solutions for our customers on a gradual basis. For this we can build on existing technologies such as remote plant maintenance or remote process parameter analysis.

The LASER World of PHOTONICS 2017 is just around the corner. What will you be focusing on there?

Wolpiansky: From the automotive sector we will be showing the technology I mentioned for perforating airbags in leather-covered dashboards, which uses our JENOPTIK-VOTAN A Scan laser system. And we will also be presenting our award-winning fender processing process. Visitors can also look forward to a wealth of other innovations for megatrends such as the digital world, health and mobility. For example, we will be showing optical precision systems and microoptics, as well as technologies used for diagnostics and therapy.

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