The robots are coming." It was a sure-fire joke at the manufacturing trade journal I worked at 12 years ago. We'd sit around the conference table brainstorming new story ideas when the inevitable lull would settle in. Then somebody would blurt out "I know! How about `The Robots are Coming!'" and everyone would laugh. Then someone else would chirp up "The Lasers are Coming!" Someone else, "The Waterjets are Coming!" Then we'd settle down and map out an exciting feature story on "What's New in Cutting Tool Inserts."

Amazingly, all these stories already had been done to death and had become cliches by the early 1980s. A few years later the technologies were all but dead, too. After numerous spectacular failures, nobody in the auto industry wanted to even hear the words robot or laser; you could, however, talk all you wanted about cutting-tool inserts.

But now this high-tech "Star Wars" technology is creeping back into the auto industry disguised as practical machinery. Robots have been selling in record numbers to the automotive industry for the past several years. Now lasers and waterjets - which often are hooked up to robots - are picking up steam too. Hobart Brothers Co. (Troy, OH) opened an Application and Service Center in suburban Detroit last December and is marketing a new high-powered Nd:YAG laser to automakers. Waterjet manufacturer Flow International Corp. (Kent, WA) recently acquired two robotic companies - ASI Robotic Systems and Dynovation Machine Systems Inc. - to strengthen its position as a vendor of waterjet cutting and surface-preparation equipment to automotive OEMs and their suppliers.

Robotics systems provide motion control for Flow's ultrahigh-pressure waterjet equipment that enables customers to perform highly precise, complex cutting, cleaning and surface-preparation operations. This month, Flow is opening a new Detroit branch office designed to give local technical support and training to automotive customers.

Even so, while these sophisticated manufacturing devices are much more accepted on the factory floor now, they still aren't exactly shoo-ins with cautious manufacturing engineers with tight budgets. But in a growing number of cases they are becoming the logical choice because of complex new vehicle designs or environmental concerns.

Hobart Lasers' Advanced Systems Div. says its new HLP 3000 is the most powerful Nd:YAG laser commercially available. Starting at about $300,000 a copy, it's not cheap, even by automotive standards. But its flexibility and power is allowing it to find a niche in complex three-dimensional welding applications, says Lorne Weeter, regional sales manager.

Hooked to a robot, the HLP 3000 can replace more than four resistance spot-welders, and can cut and weld thicker materials at much faster speeds. A hot new application area likely will be in the assembly of vehicles with tubular hydroformed steel body structures. Such structures are very strong and light-weight, but their complex geometries pose accessibility problems to more conventional welding technologies.

Nd:YAG lasers can send their light beams through fiber optic cables, instead of having to bounce them off a series of mirrors like more conventional carbon dioxide lasers. That makes them simpler and much easier to integrate with a robot going through the gymnastics of a complex welding operation. However, Hobart's Mr. Weeter says most automotive factory floor experience is with carbon dioxide lasers, so Nd:YAG still has to prove itself to always skeptical manufacturing engineers.

Fortunately that shouldn't be too difficult. Unlike the old days, when high-tech companies developed their products in secret and then let automakers figure out how to use them, Hobart created the HLP 3000 with a development team that included potential customers, and the company addressed their goals and concerns.

The same is true at Flow, which uses robotically controlled waterjets to do work similar to lasers in applications where heat can't be used. About 25% of Flow's business currently is auto related (not including its new acquisitions, which have substantial automotive business) and it anticipates revenue growth in this area to increase 20% annually over the next five years. Flow says it can't yet quantify how much its newest businesses, surface preparation, coating removal and cleaning of automotive parts will grow.

Those of us who have been covering this technology for the past 15 years have heard these kinds of automotive growth figures before. The difference now is nobody is laughing.