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Innovative Welding Techniques For Lighter Cars

Posted July 18, 2014 12:48 PM by Jordan Perch

Car makers' efforts for building lighter vehicles are playing a significant role in improving fuel economy and reducing harmful emissions, in addition to developing more efficient engines and employing lighter materials. The way different components in cars are joined together is one of the most important factors that can help reduce a car's weight. One of the most efficient welding methods in the last few years was introduced by the Japanese car maker Honda, which started fusing aluminum and steel through a friction-stir method, resulting in a stronger bond between the two metals, and a significantly reduced vehicle weight.

Recently, another very innovative method was introduced by a team of researchers at University West in the Swedish city of Trolhattan, which is known for its research efforts for improving machinery parts and computer controllers, trying to enhance manufacturing processes. It aims to help make lighter cars by employing robotic welding equipment. In essence, this method is pretty similar to Honda's technique, as it is also based on the friction-stir technique, which has proven to be efficient in creating light vehicle sub frames. But, the difference is that the method developed by the Swedish researchers can be used to join other car components, in addition to the car's sub frame.

The University West's friction-stir welding (FSW) method involves a special welding tool, that can measure temperature, in order to keep it below the melting point, resulting in stronger joints and preserving the optimal alloy properties. Controlling the temperature during the welding process is perhaps the biggest improvement over the FSW method used by Honda and other car makers. When different parts are being welded together, temperature tends to increase considerably, which often causes the metals to start melting, with the welding tool sinking in the sheets.

What makes the FSW method so efficient is the fact that it creates frictional heat and uses mechanical stirring to prevent the material from melting. By creating a welding tool that serves as a temperature sensor, as well, the researchers have managed to develop a method where the temperature is measured and controlled continuously, so that they can control and adjust tool rotation the minute it becomes too hot. Jeroen De Backer, one of the scientists involved in this project, said that they have employed an industrial robot in the process, which has helped ensure better welding quality.

"It's thanks to this temperature controller that we've managed to raise both the quality and the productivity of the robot system. The robot welds with higher precision and with the temperature controller it only takes a few hours to programme 3D joints. Manual programming of a similar component took up to a week", said De Backer. What's more, the industrial robot helped researchers weld three-dimensional joints, which according to De Backer, should enable the welding of more complex components.

University West is realizing this project in collaboration with Volvo Aero, a Swedish aircraft manufacturer, SAAB Automobile, the luxury car manufacturer, which has introduced many innovative automotive technologies in the past, and ESAB, a Swedish electric welding company.

If this technology, that is still in an early development stage, really turns out to be so much better than traditional welding methods, global car makers will surely adopt it, and it will bring about major improvements in the car manufacturing process, since it addresses one of the biggest challenges that automakers are facing in their efforts for making lighter cars - connecting two different materials without adding extra weight. By allowing two metals with different properties, such as aluminum and steel, to be welded together without compromising the quality of the alloy, the friction-stir welding method can help make aluminum a more viable material for the production of various car components. If more steel components in a car are replaced by aluminum ones, it would reduce the car's weight drastically, resulting in lower fuel consumption, and better aerodynamic capabilities.

According to Honda, the FSW method can make vehicle 25% lighter, which can make a huge difference in terms of improving fuel efficiency and decreasing CO2 emissions. On top of this, friction-stir welding is more cost-effective, as it uses much less electricity compared to conventional welding methods, which also makes it more environmentally-friendly.


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