TOKYO -- Honda Motor has developed a production system that uses lasers to cut auto body parts from steel sheets, becoming the first in the world to use such a system in vehicle mass production.
The system was commercialized by Honda Engineering, a manufacturing technology development unit, in cooperation with Hitachi Zosen Fukui, a major developer and manufacturer of production equipment.
Commercially available laser cutters are not powerful enough for auto production, since it takes too long to cut into steel sheets. Honda Engineering and H&F developed a mechanism for moving a high-powered laser beam at high speeds, as well as a device that can feed tens of thousands of metal sheets a day, a level needed for automobile mass production. The resultant system cuts a steel sheet about 10 times faster than the existing laser cutters on the market.
The advanced production system has already been installed at Honda's plant in Yorii, Saitama Prefecture, for use in production of the mainstay Fit subcompact and Vezel sport utility vehicle. Honda will consider bringing it to other plants, including those in North America.
With the conventional method of using metal dies to make automobile body parts, it is difficult to change designs once mass production begins. For this reason, automakers normally keep using the same metal dies until the next design update, which may take several years.
Honda's new production system featuring the powerful laser cutter enables the automaker to change parts designs flexibly because all it requires is modifying the system's program settings. In addition, it reduces capital expenditures because it eliminates the need for developing and making metal dies. Metal dies for cutting out relatively large parts such as doors and ceilings typically cost tens of millions of yen (10 million yen = $87,770) to develop and make.
The new system also makes it easier to profit from low-volume production. This will allow Honda to manufacture a range of unique new vehicles. The Japanese automaker's popularity partly stems from its track record of offering vehicles with cutting-edge designs, such as the S660 and the NSX.