New technology series from KUKA Systems makes a start in this issue – part I
The robotics division of KUKA is generally known and (almost) everyone in the general public can imagine roughly what a robot is. However, the situation is somewhat more difficult with the products and services from KUKA Systems: the general public is not so widely aware of these, and they have such a multifunctional character that some explanations are required. Therefore, our intention with this new series in OrangeNews is to present the key expertise and, above all, the people behind them: What can KUKA Systems do, and who is actually behind the success of these technologies? Where are they used, and what potential do they offer?
In this part, we will present the various laser technologies. Siegfried Heißler, group leader for Metal Solutions, responded to our questions. Since the 1980s KUKA has been working on the topic of lasers right from the early 1980s. Originally, only CO2 lasers were available, whose beam had to be directed to the processing optics by means of an intricate mirror guidance system. This severely restricted the possible applications with robots. Since the turn of the 1990s, the introduction of lasers whose laser light can be carried along flexible fiber optic cables has meant that the number of applications has increased significantly. KUKA Systems achieved the breakthrough in this segment in 1993 with the first fiber-guided laser system for roof welding in the body shop at Ford in Cologne.
MODES OF OPERATION AND ADVANTAGES OF LASER TECHNOLOGY:
As a thermal tool, the laser beam can
• heat material for hardening and brazing,
• melt for cutting or welding,
• vaporize for drilling or structuring and
• ionize, i.e. create a plasma in penetration welding.
The greatest advantage of this technology was the contact-free, flexible working method. Lasers heat up the material on a localized and precisely controlled basis. Over the course of time, new technologies have been introduced alongside classic laser welding and are also used to an increasing extent at KUKA, such as laser hybrid welding, laser metal deposition and laser cutting.
Combined advantage Laser hybrid welding represents a combination of the laser and arc welding processes, and combines all benefits of both: high welding speed, low heat input as well as high acceptance of tolerances.
The robot-based welding module, KS HYBRIDTEC, is KUKA’s own development in this area. In laser metal deposition, a laser melts a filler material which fuses with the surface of the workpiece, resulting in a partial change of the material’s properties. This technology has already been used, for example, in a system supplied by KUKA Systems for repairing marine diesel cylinders at MAN.
From a process technology standpoint, laser welding is a rather “old” technology which is predominantly used on gantry machines, however. Progress in robotic technology has enabled robots to compete increasingly with expensive gantry systems for laser welding, meaning that this is a growth market opening up for both laser and robot applications.
KUKA flexibleCube is a newly developed, standardized cell concept for welding solutions. It is recommended as an entry point to automation technology, as well as providing a flexible means of expanding production capacity. The modular system offers a wide range of cost-effective, standardized components (such as housings, safety elements, positioning aids) both for laser and arc welding technology. With this solution, Systems and Robotics intend to work together to increase market penetration with standardized products. More information about flexiCube is available at www.flexiblecube.de.
When it comes to lasers, close cooperation between the colleagues at Systems and Robotics is the order of the day. Jointly, they develop new technologies through a close exchange of expertise. Further synergies arise from joint contacts and close cooperation on the sales side. The importance of this technology for KUKA is shown by the existence of a separate laser specialist in the USA.
Peter Busuttil is responsible for looking after the process technology and providing sales support for laser applications in the American market. Robot-based laser technology offers even greater growth potential. This is because the technology has now become established at the big OEMs, which means the tier one suppliers and smaller companies will invest in it in the medium-term as well. “We have solutions for all requirements,” promises Siegfried Heißler, “from laser contract manufacturing using flexibleCube through to the laser testing laboratory.”