By the end of 2010, over 100,000 robots will have been sold worldwide. In the first nine months of 2010, sales of industrial robots had doubled compared with the same period in the extremely weak previous year. Following the very low levels of investment during the global economic crisis, there is now great demand for robotics and automation. This major recovery is being powered primarily by car manufacturers and the electronics industry. The metal industry and automotive component suppliers have also increased their investment in robotic solutions once again.
The upturn is also tangible in the laser industry – a sector that had to come to terms with a drop in sales of around 40 percent during the crisis. Flexible robotic applications equipped with laser technology are in great demand. There are a number of reasons for this positive development:
– Growing acceptance of laser technology in sectors such as automotive manufacturing, rail vehicle construction and general markets has induced manufacturers of plant construction to develop innovative and highly customer-oriented cell solutions.
– Technological progress has resulted in both high-brightness lasers and direct diode lasers, which are establishing themselves in the welding/brazing sector, becoming significantly less expensive.
– Furthermore, the increasing path accuracy of robots is paving the way for new fields of applications: tasks such as laser welding or remote welding that are of interest to various industries.
Whereas, back in 2002, path repeatability of one millimeter was planned in the robotics industry, current specifications are for 0.16 mm. With this hugely improved path accuracy, robots are now able to meet the requirements of many customers and serve alongside existing CNC machines. For users who do not need the extremely high accuracy of a CNC machine for their laser cutting tasks, the robotic application is the ideal alternative. „The robot requires significantly less investment, but is sufficiently accurate for many customers and has the added advantage of being highly flexible,“ explains Jens Huberti, customer project manager at KUKA Systems. „We are not displacing CNC machines, but tapping a larger customer base from all branches of industry with robots.“
Special high-accuracy robots from KUKA for laser applications
KUKA has developed a range of products for high-accuracy continuous-path processes that meet the requirements of the automotive sector, general industry and TIER 1 customers alike. „We have solutions for everyone,“ summarizes Siegfried Heissler, laser expert at KUKA Systems. Designed for high-precision specifications, High Accuracy series robots from KUKA are particularly suitable for laser applications. These robots feature particularly fast wrist axes. Special gear units with high correction velocities ensure optimal process results and pose repeatability of ±0.05 mm. In order to carry out practice-oriented application trials, KUKA headquarters in Augsburg and the subsidiary KUKA Systems in Sterling Heights, Michigan, USA each set up a laser laboratory. „Here, trials can be conducted on workpieces using the process parameters specified by the customer,“ explains Siegfried Heissler.
The automotive industry in the USA is increasingly investing in laser applications. „American automobile manufacturers have been cautiously observing market developments in Europe and are only now starting to adopt laser applications that are established in Europe,“ explains Peter Gmeiner, Key Technology Manager at KUKA Roboter. Laser applications that have meanwhile been adopted as standard in the European automotive industry are now increasingly being employed on the American continent. These primarily cover classic tasks, such as roof seam brazing, welding of vehicle bodies, seats and doors, and brazing of visible seams on the tailgate.
Modular standard cells appeal to many branches of industry
Robotic laser applications are also set to become more and more established among TIER 1 customers, as this sector is affected by particularly high pressure on prices. The reduction in costs referred to above means that investment in a robotic-/laser application is also an interesting prospect for suppliers. For these customers, in particular, KUKA“s „pre-engineered cell“ represents a cost-effective system solution. This is a modular, ready-made standard cell. Interested potential customers can make use of an interactive configurator at see how such a modular cell can be put together. These cells are also suitable in general industry, where they can be adapted to customer applications by means of corresponding fixtures.
While robotic laser welding and laser brazing are already established, there is still great potential for growth in the field of cutting applications – once again, this is due to the increasing path accuracy of the robot coupled with reduced investment costs for the laser. Applications in this sector will increasingly be in a position to challenge established gantry systems.
Flexible robotic solutions are on the rise
A new niche is being established between high-end solutions and low-cost solutions in the automated laser sector: flexible solutions! Customer requirements have changed accordingly: because the flexibility of industrial robots means that they can also be used for other tasks, they are gaining in importance. The robot allows the customer to react to changing batch sizes or product requirements without the need for time-consuming or costly conversion. The KUKA robot offers the customer a wide range of options: with special KUKA application-software, the robot can meet welding, cutting and brazing requirements, while the addition of arc welding options makes laser hybrid applications ever more attractive.
The KUKA System Software enables the programming of complex curves with the aid of the SPLINE function. This makes it easier to program accurate paths for such complex curves in a single step. Parameters such as velocity, acceleration and orientation control can be programmed either for the entire SPLINE motion or separately for individual segments.
Requested laser applications: current developments and trends
Other laser applications are also becoming established with robots, however, such as laser metal deposition – an application in which base material is applied. Laser hybrid welding, on the other hand, is a process combination of laser and arc welding, ensuring high process velocity coupled with reduced application of heat compared with arc welding. With the development of KS HybridTec, KUKA Systems has achieved the ideal combination of the advantages of conventional arc welding and laser welding processes. The compact design ensures optimum workpiece accessibility, even in the case of three-dimensional assemblies. Gap bridging is greatly improved.
Laser welding is increasingly setting itself apart from spot welding, as many different kinds of steel, including high-strength steel, have to be welded. The key to success here is the clamping equipment: in addition to the cell system itself, KUKA Systems also offers sophisticated clamping equipment. With KUKA, the customer receives everything he needs for his laser application from a single source: from the appropriate robot and the „pre-engineered cell“ to the turnkey application.
Already, KUKA is market leader and an innovative solution partner in the field of remote welding – a highly attractive process for automotive body production. This process allows the welding of workpieces from a great distance using a high-brightness laser. The laser beam is focused on the seam between the materials to be welded. Very high power densities are achieved at the focal point, welding the processed materials at high speed. One of the many advantages of remote welding is the reduction of laser idle times. Together with laser network technology, the remote laser process allows an „on-the-fly“ process with optimized LaserOn times on the workpiece. This also reduces the operating costs of the system.
What does the future have in store for the laser industry? Many sheet-metal working companies are champing at the bit to invest in robot-based laser technology. Small and medium-sized companies are losing their inhibitions with regard to automation. KUKA is addressing the requirements of these interested potential customers and offering them everything they need, from the robot software to the laser testing laboratory. As an expert in the laser sector, KUKA offers products and solutions covering the entire process range. „We do not sell lasers, we provide overall solutions,“ affirms Siegfried Heissler. This is confirmed by Peter Gmeiner: „We will always offer our customers the best solutions!“
KUKA Systems is an international supplier of flexible automation systems for the automotive, aerospace, energy and industrial solutions industries. A workforce of around 3,500 across the world works on ideas, concepts and solutions for automated production as well as the provision of products and services for virtually all tasks in the industrial processing of metallic and non-metallic materials.
The range of products and services is presented and marketed internationally by subsidiaries and distribution agents in Europe, the Americas and Asia. KUKA Systems posted a total order volume of around EUR 695 m in 2010.
KUKA Systems GmbH
+49 821 797-2483