Leak Detection Critical Part Of Airbag Quality Control Process

Airbag manufacturers are using sophisticated helium leak-detection tests to help assure product quality. Airbag leak testing is big business. Today’s new cars and light trucks today are equipped with up to 12 airbags. Suppliers in the U.S. alone conduct as many as 750-million helium-based leak tests a year on up to 300-million airbags. Airbag production is expected to increase by eight percent or more in each of the next two years as well. ARC Automotive, Autoliv, Daicel, Key Safety, Takata and TRW are among the world’s major airbag suppliers. Each of their plants may be equipped with up to 100 helium leak-detection systems each costing $45,000 up to $250,000 or more. Helium leak tests are the safest and most effective available, but considerable training and supervision is required to guarantee process quality. “Helium testing is like driving a high-performance sports car,” said Thomas Parker, North American sales director for INFICON, the leading supplier of airbag leak-detection equipment in the region. “You need lessons and know-how to operate the equipment. Otherwise you might as well be blindfolded and driving in reverse.” A relatively small, publicly-traded company on the Swiss stock exchange (SIX) under the IFCN symbol, INFICON has more than 900 employees, including 360 in the United States. Its automotive leak-detection equipment is produced in Cologne, Germany. Speaking today at a media briefing in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, Parker explained that helium is the only leak-detection method used in the final testing of airbag systems by major suppliers. Leaks can occur around weld locations in the airbag housing, its ignitor or filler port. Most airbags systems are tested twice, once during assembly and then 12 to 72 hours later to identify possible “slow leaks” that only might become apparent later in the process. Even the smallest leak location could allow water to get into a system and react with solid explosive material. Sales of INFICON’s airbag leak-detection equipment has spiked over the past two years as airbag manufacturers have tightened and improved their test procedures. The company’s industry-leading LDS3000 and MODUL1000 systems are covered by a variety of patents. “Using our equipment, one major supplier reduced the cycle times required to test compressed-gas inflators by 43 percent, from 19 seconds to 10 seconds per test,” Parker noted. All airbag inflators, regardless of type, are leak tested with helium leak-detection equipment to ensure that the inflator will perform as expected during the life of the product. The loss of stored gas in the inflator could seriously affect airbag performance during an accident. If a pyrotechnic inflator has a leak, water vapor also could enter the inflator, react with combustible material in the system and cause the airbag to deploy unexpectedly. The INFICON executive added that every type of inflator also uses a small pyrotechnic device called an igniter, which is helium leak tested as well. “There is an ever-increasing demand for quick, low-cost and highly reliable leak-detection equipment, especially when it comes to airbag inflators and igniters,” said Parker. “Manufacturers who have introduced automated INFICON test systems have achieved a 100 percent return on their investment within three-to-six-months based on savings from lower maintenance costs and increased productivity.” Paul Chamberlain, president of LACO Technologies, a global supplier of helium leak-detection systems for testing inflators and igniters, reported that “LACO has manufactured many leak test workstations in which the inflator can be loaded in the test chamber by either an operator or robotically. These systems can yield part-to-part test cycle rates of less than 10 seconds per part.” INFICON is one of the world’s leading developers, producers and suppliers of instruments and devices for leak detection in air conditioning, refrigeration and automotive manufacturing. The company has manufacturing facilities in Europe, China and the United States, as well as sales and service offices throughout the world.

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