While “going green” is a familiar concept, the materials and processes needed to make real change are constantly evolving to better protect our environment. The automotive industry continues to embrace green technologies to meet environmentally-conscious consumer demands and to position itself over the competition.
The shift towards greener transportation is enabled by new materials and manufacturing processes using composite materials such as fiberglass and advanced composites, which employ carbon fibers to create an extremely strong structure to reduce weight while increasing strength.
Lighter cars consume less fuel, generating less CO2 emissions. A car weighing only 10% less could result in an impact of 6-8% less fuel consumption. If manufacturers were able to fully replace traditional frames and parts for carbon composite materials, the result could be up to 50% less weight. Simply changing the material of a car seat could cause that single component to be 20-40% lighter.
Increased demand for strong, lightweight carbon composite materials must be met with an efficient, cost-effective manufacturing process. Today’s technology uses IR lamps or hot gas Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) techniques, which are used by aerospace and automotive manufacturers alike. However, the traditional IR heating method comes with drawbacks in heat control including temperature management, uniformity, and wasted heat. This leads to major drawbacks for manufacturers using this process, such as:
- Manufacturing line downtime
- Inefficient energy usage
- Limited total throughput
However, advancements in laser diode technology have led to the application of laser-based AFP. Introducing this evolved process allows for greater efficiency and control because laser diodes are capable of directed heating. Laser-based systems offer the following key advantages:
- Compactness. Small laser modules can easily stack to create a compact, adjustable heating head to save manufacturing space and increase flexibility.
- Targeted heating. Directed, accurate beams allow for very targeted heating on the desired location. This is expected to result in a 47% reduction in re-work.
- Low parasitic heating. The ability to shape and homogenize the laser beam is essential to eliminate undesired heating of material outside the target area and it reduces poor quality due to overheating.
- High efficiency. High electrical-to-optical efficiency, targeted heating and the ability to quickly adjust the heating power increases the overall efficiency of the manufacturing process.
Adoption of a carbon composite manufacturing process is expected to improve material processing speeds by 400%. This includes an increase in pre-preg layup volume for a skilled technician, resulting in a shift of 2.5 lbs. to 50 lbs. in an hour. These advancements in efficiency will allow manufacturers to better support the growing demand from the automotive and other related industries.