Laser welding is finding its way into more vehicle applications due to inherent weld strength, adaptability to complex weld geometries, and lower part distortion (Figure 1). Automotive applications use a variety of welding joint designs for laser welding in both lap joint and seam butt joint configurations as shown in Figure 2. For example, laser butt-welding is used for welding tubes in roll-forming production lines as an alternative method for high frequency induction welding. Seam welds on butt joints need less power from the machine than lap joints due to the smaller weld fusion area, producing less distortion and a smaller heat affected zone (HAZ). Butt joint configurations are more cost efficient, however, the fit up for seam welds can be more difficult to obtain than those of lap joints.
When seam welding butt joint configurations, a general guideline for fit-up requirements include a gap of 3-10% the thickness of the thinnest sheet being welded, and an offset of 5-12% thickness of the thinnest sheet. Conversely, lap joints can require a gap of 5-10% the thickness of the top sheet being welded (Figure 3).
Laser welding is often used for AHSS lap (overlap) joints, but of course use different parameters compared to seam butt joint configurations. This type of weld is either a conventional weld with approximately 50% penetration in the bottom sheet or an edge weld. Welding is performed in the same way as for mild steels, but the clamping forces needed for a good joint fit-up are higher with AHSS than for mild steels. Lap joints tend to provide a larger process window, which can compensate for some of the manufacturing difficulties with AHSS, including springback and part distortion.
To achieve good laser-welded overlap joints for Zn-coated AHSS, a small intermittent gap (0.1-0.2 mm) between the sheets is recommended, which is identical to Zn-coated mild steels. In this way, the Zn does not get trapped in the melt, avoiding pores and other imperfections. An excessive gap can create an undesirable underfill on the topside of the weld.
Studies have shown laser welding Zn-coated steels can be done without using a gap between the overlapped sheets. This is accomplished using dual laser beams. While the first beam is used to heat and evaporate the Zn coating, the second beam performs the welding. The dual laser beam configuration combines two laser-focusing heads using custom-designed fixtures.
AHSS grades can be laser butt-welded and are used in production of tailored products (tailor-welded blanks and tubes). The requirements for edge preparation of AHSS are similar to mild steels – in both cases, a good quality edge and a good fit-up are critical to achieve good quality welds.
If a tailor-welded product is intended for use in a forming operation, a general stretchability test such as the Erichsen Olsen cup test can be used for assessment of the formability of the laser weld. AHSS with tensile strengths up to 800 MPa show good Erichsen test values (Figure 4).
The hardness of the laser welds for AHSS is higher than for mild steels (Figure 5). However, good stretchability ratios in the Erichsen test can still be achieved when the difference in hardness between weld metal and base metal is only slightly higher for AHSS compared to mild steels. If the hardness of the weld is too high, a post-annealing treatment (using HF-equipment or a second laser scan) may be used to reduce the hardness and improve the stretchability of the weld.