Nissan is looking to slice up to £500,000 ($US703,000) off the development cost of models manufactured at its plant in Sunderland, north-east England, by using a laser beam to measure car body panels.

The plant's new Model Maker creates an electronic replica of a panel by rapidly scanning the surface with a laser and sending back thousands of measurements to a computer.

"At the moment we fix panels into specially-built gauges which represent the perfect shape the panel should be. We then drill down through the panel until we reach a subsurface layer positioned beneath it, and measure the distance in between," quality assurance engineer Ian Bargman said.

"Once we have taken enough measurements like this, we can tell how closely a particular panel matches its design specification. However, this is very time-consuming and not as precise as we would like."

There are also significant costs involved in making the subsurface layers for each gauge.

Using a laser beam, however, the Model Maker system takes 14,000 readings a second and can scan an entire panel in less time than it takes to drill the panel in the old way. This provides thousands of measurements taken across the entire surface of the body part, which are used to create a 'virtual' panel.

This electronic model is analysed to see how closely it matches the original CAD design data and its specifications.

Training in the use of the £123,000 ($US173,000) machine is under way and the technique is being applied first to the new Primera due to be built from the end of the year.