SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Car makers and their suppliers are facing new passive-restraint safety requirements coupled with an ongoing need to reduce costs and improve the quality of component testing.
In the U.S., 50 percent of all vehicles under a gross vehicle weight of 10,000 pounds built after Sept. 14 will be required to meet new side-impact requirements (FMVSS 226); 75 percent by 2015, and 100 percent by 2016.
Most manufacturers are expected to modify current side-impact airbag curtains to meet the new standards. Elsewhere around the world a number of other passive restraint rules also are taking effect. In Brazil and Argentina, for example, front airbag systems now are being required for all passenger cars and other light vehicles.
Frontal airbags have proven to reduce fatalities in frontal crashes by up to 25 percent and reduce serious head injuries by more than 60 percent, according to Thomas Parker, sales manager for INFICON Automotive in North America. Globally, more than 300 million airbag systems are produced annually and the number is expected to grow on an annual basis by eight percent through 2016.
The average car buyer doesn't realize that most new cars are equipped with as many as 12 airbags, Parker points out. A variety of different airbag systems are currently in production or under development, including:
• Side curtain airbags decrease life-threatening head injuries in side impacts by approximately 50 percent.
• Dual-chamber side airbags further protect chest and pelvic areas, reducing serious injuries by 25 percent or more.
• Knee airbags significantly reduce hip, thigh and knee injuries which represent nearly 25 percent of active-life years lost as a result of frontal crash injuries.
• Anti-slide airbags raise the front portion of a seat cushion to prevent the occupant from sliding under the seatbelt, significantly reducing knee, hip and thigh injuries for belted passengers.
• Bag-in-belt systems, combinations of seatbelt and airbag, reduce the load on an occupant's ribcage in front collisions.
• Far-side airbags inflate between seats and prevent the sideways movement of occupants. Research shows that 30 percent of all serious injuries in side-impact collisions result from a far-side passenger hitting another occupant or hard object.
Three basic types of automotive airbag inflation systems currently are available, including:
• Pyrotechnic inflators that use the combustion of propellant to create gases to inflate the airbag;
• Compressed gas products that store high-pressure inert gas (sometimes helium or argon) for release in milliseconds, and
• Hybrid pyrotechnic and stored-gas systems that use a combination of both for flexibility and performance.
“Leakage standards for airbag inflators are among the tightest in the auto industry – much tougher than requirements set for fuel, air conditioning or brake systems,” Parker says.
All 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 can enter the inflator, react with combustible material in the system and cause the airbag to deploy unexpectedly.
The INFICON executive adds that every type of inflator also uses a small pyrotechnic device called an igniter, which is helium leak tested as well. He estimates that automakers and their suppliers annually conduct more than 600 million leak tests on airbag inflator components and igniter-based seatbelt pretension systems in the United States alone.
“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,” says 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, states: "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."
Reliability and high throughput are key airbag inflator test requirements. Parker notes that one major airbag supplier reduced cycle times for compressed gas inflator testing by 43 percent, from 19 seconds to 10 seconds per test, adding that INFICON systems can go without adjustment or recalibration for 24,000 hours of operation or more.
"INFICON product names aren't familiar to new-car buyers, but they're well-known to quality-control managers throughout the auto industry," Parker says. "Our products help assure the quality of literally millions of new cars and trucks."
Vacuum Technology Inc. (VTI) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee is a diversified provider of leak detection systems for the automotive industry. VTI's President George Solomon adds that his company recently developed an inflator leak test system based on an INFICON gas analyzer for testing with argon gas instead of helium for hybrid inflator applications.
Other major automotive components and systems that require leak testing include:
• Fuel Systems – Fuel tanks; filler caps and necks; fuel injectors; fuel pumps; fuel lines, and filters.
• Driveline Components – Engine oil circuits; transmissions; torque converters; intercoolers; electric car batteries; natural gas engines, and hydrogen and natural gas fuel tanks.
• Oil and Water Systems – Plastic oil tanks; oil pans; oil coolers; oil pumps; coolant expansion tanks; water coolers, and water pumps.
• Safety Components – Brake fluid reservoirs; power brake boosters; vacuum brake pumps; brake hoses; seat belt pretensioners; airbag igniter caps, and airbag generators.
• Air Conditioning Systems – AC hoses; compressors; evaporators; condensers, and filling valves.
• Other Systems – Power steering housings; servo oil reservoirs; windshield wiper-fluid containers; wheels; shock absorbers and starter batteries.
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.
More information about INFICON automotive technology is available online at
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