Professor Wahl, for years you’ve been working in the field of lasers. Which developments in the field would you define as milestones in industrial applications since Theodore H. Maiman’s ruby laser became the first functioning laser in 1960?
There have been two major milestones in the industrial application of lasers for processing materials: lasers for high-performance use, and better lasers with shorter pulses for precision processing. Both kinds of laser became widely available as stable devices as of the 1980s, and over the years they’ve improved in terms of focus and energy efficiency. At the same time, new areas of industrial application are constantly emerging.
The main focus of your Steinbeis Transfer Center for Laser Processing and Innovative Manufacturing Technology is implementing laser material processing technologies in your customers’ manufacturing, who, as one might expect, come from the automotive industry. What are the key areas where lasers are used in this field, and which services are particularly sought after?
The key areas where lasers are used in the automotive industry are engines, powertrains and the chassis. For powertrain components, the most important issue is laser welding, which is already well established. But there is growing need for newer processes like laser hardening and laser contract welding, especially for parts that bear major loads or are in danger of warping. As far as the chassis is concerned, laser welding and laser soldering are the most critical processes for the sheet metal parts themselves. There’s also rising demand for laser hardening and laser contract welding when it comes to the forming dies and cutting tools used in processing sheet metal. And there’s a growing demand for R&D services in terms of developing laser processing for applications involving specific components. These parts come from a variety of areas in the car – powertrains, auto bodies and tool manufacturing.
You developed laser hardening for Camtronic camshafts, which won you the Steinbeis Foundation’s 2014 transfer award in conjunction with Daimler. Where do you see further development potential for this process?
Integrating more functionality into engine parts, powertrain components and tools makes parts even more complex and they often become lighter in the process. Laser hardening helps make components stronger without any damage from melting or excessive warping, which is something more and more manufacturers are looking for. So there is major potential.
The automotive industry plays a pivotal role in the German economy. Which challenges do you see approaching in the future, and what effect will they have on work at your Steinbeis Transfer Center?
The challenges in the automotive industry are multifaceted. Some have no impact on the core business of our Steinbeis Transfer Center – things like the growing amount of IT in vehicles, or traffic around the vehicle, or the financially viable use of new kinds of drive energy. There are other areas, however, where we foresee our work at the Steinbeis Enterprise continuing to have an impact, like the constant technological optimization of components used in the powertrain, chassis and tool manufacturing, not to mention continued development of cost-cutting hightech production processes used in the automotive industry. The latter, by the way, is a help with the challenge of keeping automotive manufacturing competitive in Europe.
Professor Dr.-Ing. Roland Wahl is director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Laser Processing and Innovative Manufacturing Technology at Pforzheim University of Applied Sciences. His Steinbeis Enterprise offers clients consulting, technical solutions, feasibility studies, technology development services, R&D and solutions related to application-specific wear protection coating.
Professor Dr.-Ing. Roland Wahl
Steinbeis Transfer Center Laser Processing and Innovative Manufacturing Technology (Pforzheim)