DETROIT — It was gee-whiz stuff in the early '80s: laser-guided gauging systems that could “look” at a vehicle body at the end of the assembly line and compare its tolerances to the ideal, assuring that the vehicle was being assembled within specification.

Since then, the auto industry has witnessed hundreds of similar process-control and assembly miracles, as electronic/optical/laser innovations came fast and hard with the advent of inexpensive electronics and dizzyingly dropping prices for computer processing power.

Now, one of the laser-measurement and inspection systems' best-known early innovators, Plymouth, MI's Perceptron, says it has a new and more-powerful portfolio of systems that promise advances similar to those of two decades past.

The message comes just in time, perhaps, for a domestic auto industry grappling with genuine quality issues and a pervasive perception that the cost-pressured Detroit automakers are again backsliding from quality gains made throughout the '80s and '90s.

Perceptron's gunning for an increased emphasis on the company's unique measurement systems because there's a direct correlation to ultimate vehicle quality, explains Bill Corriveau, senior vice president of Perceptron's Global Automotive Business Unit. He insists that employing only end-of-the-assembly-line measurement — the type of system on which his company built its reputation — isn't good enough anymore.

“We really used to be a one-product company — end-of-the-line gauging,” he says. But the quality battle lines have moved, and auto makers' competitiveness in quality dictated a broader approach, he adds.

Thus comes an entire “family” of laser-based measurement systems that Perceptron says addresses the need to produce better vehicles with more accurate panel fits and closure tolerances.

Initially, fully finished vehicles coming to the end of the assembly process were measured. That still happens with an improved system Perceptron dubs AutoGauge, which takes three-dimensional measurements that ensure assembly variations remain within specification.

Taking that idea to a new level is AutoFit, Perceptron's new-generation system that never touches the vehicle, yet it measures — at full line speed — the gap between panels, as well as panel flushness. Nor is it limited to end-of-the-line status: Corriveau says the AutoFit system can be used during assembly of unpainted vehicles, ones perhaps still in the body shop, or it can be used to measure panel gap and flushness for fully painted vehicles heading for the trim and final area.

The option to pitch the AutoFit tent further up the line, says Corriveau, is important for two reasons: first, you get a “look” at the vehicle before it gets to the end of the line. And measuring prior to final assembly is particularly vital with the increasing movement to doors-off assembly processes.

Perceptron says that using AutoFit can reduce the time it takes “fitters” to finish a vehicle by as much as one-third and that it remains the only company that can provide automatic, 100% non-contact measurement for each and every vehicle.

Accompanying AutoFit and AutoGauge is AutoSpect, a sophisticated system to provide “accurate measurement of critical characteristics that influence the appearance of painted surfaces and affect the human visual perception of paint appearance quality.” To you and me, that's a way of checking the brilliance and quality of the paint job. Toyota Motor Corp. likes AutoSpect enough to use it in three Lexus plants in Japan and in the French plant that builds its popular Yaris.

In fact, 40% of Perceptron's business is in Europe, says Corriveau, who attributes the company's expanding presence in Europe and Japan to the auto makers in those regions' increased emphasis on high levels of perceived quality.

Corriveau also notes a growing take-up from large suppliers fabricating critical components or modular subassemblies such as hydroformed truck frames or complete instrument-panel assemblies.

Although laser-based measurement has been considered a “mature” technology, Perceptron's latest advances — including two other systems, AutoScan, which scans parts and tooling and AutoGuide, a guidance system that enables assembly robots to adapt to changing conditions — are proving there's still “hunt” left in the laser-guided dog.

Just in time to answer the industry's renewed need for quality improvement advances. Good timing, huh?