`Nuclear Fallout' That May Help Manufacturers

Talk about turning swords into plowshares. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif., have joined with John Deere Co. to adapt an ultraprecise welding system used in making nuclear weapons to the mass production of tractors and other heavy agricultural equipment.

In the Sandia process, a fiber-optic cable monitors the light emitted during a weld. Because the amount of light is an indication of how much metal has melted, a computerized welder can use the data to adjust its welding current. Holding the light level steady ensures a very uniform weld. And that leads to higher quality and reduces the need for testing costly components after the fact.

To convert the system to civilian work, engineers have modified the technology to use common carbon steel instead of high-grade stainless steel. Next, they have to switch from the military's precise but costly tungsten arc welding to more common gas metal arc welds. Sandia plans to license the technology, but Deere won't be the only beneficiary. The lab has teamed with the Edison Welding Institute, an industry-funded research and development organization in Columbus, Ohio, to perfect the process and get other manufacturers to try it out.