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Laser Technology

Laser customizes blanks

By Russ Olexa

If steel mills could produce thin-gauge sheet steel that had multiple characteristics, it would be a boon for automakers and other manufacturers.

For instance, if a company could produce a blank that is 13 ft. long by 6 ft. wide, with one area made of high-strength steel, another section thicker to eliminate reinforcing pieces for parts like door hinges and a third zone galvanized to stop rust, manufacturers would beat a path to its door.

For now, this type of blank is just a dream. Or is it? Actually they are being produced today, but they’re not being directly formed at a mill. They are done with the use of laser welding technology. One company doing it is Noble Metal Processing Inc. out of Warren, Mich. But what’s even more unique about these multi-characteristic blanks is that Noble is making them for exposed, automotive class-A surfaces. In fact, Noble says they are the only company producing these types of blanks.

Although tailor-welded blanks have been used by the automotive industry for some time, the industry is always demanding more from their suppliers. At Noble a new challenge is building blanks from the new high-strength steels that require welds with slightly different parameters, says Charlie Palms, business unit director.

"You can see the vehicle architectures moving towards an advanced high-strength material so they can down gauge the steel, save on weight and material usage and at the same time have a very strong body for side impact and roof pressure coordinates," Palms adds. "We’ve done a lot of development with advanced high-strength materials and it continues. At the same time, we’re always looking or working with the engineers whether it’s at the OEM or Tier One supplier to create new applications for what we’re doing. In doing this, we find new areas on the vehicle to use the advanced high-strength steels. It’s a continuous process that ends up making a vehicle lighter, stronger and cheaper."

Noble also works with tube applications making custom tubes that offer multiple capabilities by laser welding different tubes together. "We produced several different tube applications using DP600, DP780 and 980s," Palms says. "We’ve used high-boron steel tube material, different ultra high-strength and advanced high-strength steels also."

Although it would like to gain clients outside the automotive industry, Noble primarily acts as both a Tier One and Tier Two supplier. Automotive gives the company the part volumes it needs to justify the investment in the material handling systems and lasers that custom blanks require.

Noble actually started as a laser system manufacturer called Utilaze. But in 1986 the two founders realized it was hard to produce sales with minimal system-building experience. So, they started a laser job shop to gain the needed knowledge. General Motors heard about welded blanks from reports in Europe and Japan and contracted Utilaze for prototype work. Its owners recognized the potential market and spun off a separate division called Utilaze Blank Welding from their Utilaze Systems Group that built custom systems. In 1997 both divisions were acquired by Noble.

Today Noble operates six production facilities and employs more than 770 people. Its facilities are located in Warren, Mich.; Shelbyville, Ky.; Stow, Ohio; Brantford, Ontario; Adelaide, Australia; and Silao, Mexico. Its Warren facility is roughly 400,000 sq. ft.

Laser welded flat blanks
Laser-welded blanks involve a blanking process followed by laser welding. After a press blanks out the steel, a finished blank can consist of two or more separate steel sheets formed into a tailored blank and laser welded together. Component blanks are often of different thicknesses and of different types of steel such as galvanized and mild. Using different thicknesses and types of steel optimizes the structural and corrosion-resistant properties while minimizing cost and weight for a vehicle.

After blanking, the component pieces are moved into automated cells that use robots for material handling. These pieces are prepared for welding (usually having the welded edge sheared) and clamped together. Proper material clamping for welding is extremely important to produce a correct weld when using a laser. A YAG or CO2 laser system is used to weld the components together to create a laser-welded blank (LWB). After the component blanks are welded into a finished LWB, the blank is then stamped into its final shape as a vehicle structural component and attached to the vehicle structure during the assembly process.

Advantages of LWBs include: lower vehicle and part weight, reduced steel usage, improved safety, elimination of reinforcement parts and their costs, production and assembly steps, lower capital spending for stamping and spot-welding equipment, decreased inventory costs, improved dimensional part integrity, better overall part fit and finish, increased vehicle strength and rigidity, and lower total production costs.

Using one LWB rather than several spot-welded parts also results in better noise, vibration and harshness perfor­mance, as well as higher levels of customer-perceived quality. Another important benefit was the ability of a LWB to solve the rust-through problems that were so prevalent with vehicles prior to 1980.

Noble does some of the raw blanks in-house. The company also has a small ownership position in SED Enterprises (a minority company) that does blank­ing within Noble’s facility. But it also uses outside blankers such as Steel Tech Inc. and Demmer Corp.

Noble supplies parts to the OEM automakers along with parts to stampers such as Ogihara America Corp. and Tower Automotive.

For the actual blank welding, Noble has an extensive engineering staff that designs and builds their own equipment, but uses YAG and CO2 laser resonators from Rofin Sinar Inc., Trumpf Inc. and PRC Laser Corp. Resonators go from 4kW to 8kW for CO2 and 4kW for YAG. Using 8kW on its CO2 lasers allows for an increase in the productivity of LWBs. The thickest materials they’ve welded is 7.7 mm, but the main range is from 0.7 mm to 2.5 mm thick in traditional automotive-grade steels, notes Palms.

One of the biggest LWBs Noble produces is for the Ford F-150 body side which is 3,822 mm by 1,764 mm with a thickness of 2.1 mm.

Noble believes in using automated material handling systems for produc­tivity and quality. Its systems are very flexible, often handling a number of different blanks to produce final LWBs with a simple program changeover and different robot grips. With one welding cell the company can produce up to 10 different parts.

One challenge in producing a LWB is blank fixturing. "We design and build our own equipment and that has made us very aware of the requirements for butt welding," Palms says. "We’re continuously making improvements in our process. I strongly believe that’s what has made us the leader in this industry, understanding the equipment and the process along with being quick to market with the right equipment for the right application."

As to using both YAG and CO2 lasers, Palm says that consumables are about the same. "It’s pretty much even as far as welding goes," he says. "There are some cases where you might want the flexibility of the fiber optics with a YAG. For instance, if you’re producing non-linear welds or curved linear welds, or you’re not welding in a straight line, YAG can be handled by the robot to produce non-linear welds. We accomplish all our welding by using both YAG and CO2 lasers. Then there’s the safety aspect. CO2s are a little bit safer than the YAG because of the way they absorb and transmit light."

Blanks that have different thicknesses and coatings pose some challenges for the tool and die makers though. When the LWB is formed into an automotive panel, tooling for the dies has to exactly match each different component of the panel. Often these panels have deep draws of up to 4 in. If dual-phase or high-strength steels are used, they can be very hard on tooling. Some areas of the tooling could wear out faster than the others, and when the coated steel of the LWB is stamped, the cleanliness of the tooling must be maintained to produce the class-A surface on the stamped sheet.

Laser welded tubes
"The concept of our tubing applications is very similar to the LWB concept where you take a blank and engineer it to have thick or thin-gauge areas as needed in the raw tube," Palms says. "The idea is to add strength to a vehicle using tubes, but at the same time minimize the weight and the material usage. So you’re looking for strength and safety, and it has to be lightweight.

"Our standard tube would have a high diameter to thickness ratio and typically be made of advanced high-strength steel," he continues. "But it would be a singular material, one gauge, one diameter. Then the next level of engineered tube would be similar to a LWB using a multi-material or multi-gauge that’s still one diameter, but it has different materials or dissimilar material properties in one tube. Then a more advanced tube would be one that has multi-diameter features or could be conical or rectangular in shape, but it’s mutli-diameter and still maintains the same gauge thickness throughout the tube. So it hasn’t been expanded or stretched. This type of tube is very good to use in hydroforming, where you want to go beyond your normal capabilities of expansion or limits of expansion in this process. We’re going to offer a tube that’s larger at one end and perhaps smaller at the other. So if you wanted to expand it much further than you could with a normal mill tube, this product would allow you to do that. It can also be made out of advanced high-strength steel, say like a DP600, and still be able to expand well.

"Our primary focus is to have these tubes implemented in a body-in-white structure for side impact or roof crush," Palm says. "Instead of the manufacturer increasing the metal’s gauge, such as a B pillar, to increase the side impact capability of the vehicle or roof crush ability, they could use one of our tubular products with a very high diameter to thickness ratio and a very thin wall, but having high strength. So it’s lightweight, yet extremely strong. We want to keep the vehicle weight down yet make it as strong and safe as possible."

With its experience, equipment and personnel, Noble is producing the blanks that are bringing unique automotive designs to life and solving problems for other products. FFJ

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