At least I know it wasn't a Smart car

Feb. 1, 2004
I used to identify just about any automobile on the road, usually without seeing the name badge.

I used to identify just about any automobile on the road, usually without seeing the name badge. Now, driving along the Interstate, my wife will ask the name of a particularly attractive car that passes. Because identifying badges are not obvious these days, I simply shrug my shoulders and say, "Who knows, they all look alike to me."

The other night a passing car signaled a lane shift to the right. An extremely bright directional light caught my attention. At first I thought the light lens was broken because it flashed bright white, rather than the typical yellow we now equate with warning. I sped to catch up with this car to see if there was a problem. Another lane change to the left produced a similar directional signal. Now intrigued, I gave chase to identify the automaker but a rapidly approaching off ramp caused me to get only a brief look at the name badge, which my wife and I agreed could have been a BMW.

What's the point? In the past I would have known the maker from the body style and shape, instantly and correctly. My youth-oriented love affair with automobiles has long passed, but I still have fondness for a good-looking auto. Maybe it's in the genes considering that my father left home in his youth to work for Ford in Detroit, beginning his life-long love affair with automobiles. He always took me to the annual auto show and we visited all the dealers on Washington's Birthday.

I suppose it was inevitable when science took hold in the auto industry and body designs succumbed to efforts to make the vehicle more fuel-efficient by making them more air slippery. Thus the infamous tear drop shape of a few years ago that almost all auto makers emulated, causing confusion for me and other car lovers who relied on body shape to identify a maker.

My current car is a fabulously reliable and efficient vehicle and one that serves me well, but it has little style. Would I like a Lamborghini, such as referred to in this month's Update section? You bet. But, where I live, the nearest expert Lamborghini serviceman is 60 miles, and mucho dollars, away. Another sign of age I guess, reliability over flash.

I envy editors who get to test drive and report on the newest car models. Next to being paid to write about sports this ranks as the ideal job for a journalist. So I settle for the next best thing, occasionally reporting on the way cars are built. Especially those that employ laser processing in one or more applications.

For now most cars are made, primarily, of metal and assembling a vehicle requires some form of joining. Laser welding of body-in-white gets a lot of attention because we can relate to the need for better fit and finish, even though we can't identify the makers. I've taken to looking at roof joints on new cars to see if they are laser welded. This doesn't affect my choice of manufacturer, although I will be pleased when my current supplier moves in this direction.

I gave up counting the ways in which lasers are used to manufacture automobiles today, mainly because laser marking has become the part traceability technology of choice in the world's auto industries. Add in the laser-welded sensors, actuators, and other electronics and the term ubiquitous comes to mind.

It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the directional lamp assembly on that car has some laser processing associated with its production—perhaps trimming the plastic lenses or covers.

There aren't too many industries that have such global commonness that processes used by one become standard worldwide. So I'll listen with interest to reports at this year's Automotive Laser Applications Workshop to get some indications of the next major use for lasers in this pace-setting industry.

David A. Belforte
[email protected]

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