Dana Holding Corp. is developing a new laser welding method that it says can eliminate the need for bolts in certain automotive components, saving precious pounds for automakers that are gearing up for tougher fuel-economy regulations.
Laser welding is especially precise, and can more cleanly join different types of metals together than more traditional welding methods. Dana first used laser welding in 2005 when the company was developing the all-aluminum frame for the high-performance Chevrolet Corvette Z06. Now the Maumee-based auto parts supplier is working with laser welding to join certain drivetrain parts.
“It really gives us the flexibility to be able to join metals that are somewhat dissimilar, that are difficult to weld, and maintain geometry throughout the welding process,” said Seth Metzger, vice president of engineering for light vehicles at Dana.
Dana is using the laser welding process on components that transfer the power a car's engine produces to the wheels. Specifically, Dana is welding the ring gear to the differential case.
Ordinarily, those parts would be bolted together because the heat from welding could damage the gear. With precision laser welding, that isn't an issue. Getting rid of the bolts and related parts can save weight and reduce what engineers call spin loss — essentially wasted energy that is not transferred from the engine to the wheels.
Depending on the application, the process can save anywhere from 2 pounds to 12 pounds. That doesn't sound like much, but every little bit of weight cut from a vehicle makes a difference as automakers work toward meeting the government's 2017 fuel-economy standards.
“Those are going to be pretty stringent on the industry,” Mr. Metzger said. “All the [car companies] are looking for ways to take mass out and improve overall efficiencies. This is one of those tools we’re going to be utilizing to meet those needs.”
The company has invested $2.2 million to purchase equipment for the project, which is being done at its technical center in Maumee. That includes a $1 million research and development loan from the state of Ohio which was approved by the Controlling Board earlier this year.
Dana already is using the laser welding process in parts it makes for Jaguar. Mr. Metzger said the company is fine-tuning the process for other applications, and hopes to have more products in the market by the first quarter of next year.
“We’re working on when and where to deploy,” he said.
Dana recently developed a lightweight aluminum drive shaft for commercial vehicles that is produced using a proprietary magnetic-pulse welding process. In that, Dana is able to join steel end fittings to a one-piece aluminum tube. Dana says it is the first company to offer such a part, and that the drive shaft weighs up to 70 pounds less than comparable all-steel drive shafts.
For now, Dana is focusing on passenger cars and light trucks with its laser welded axle components. It says there is potential to introduce the method to commercial vehicles.
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