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Development and Pilot Line Validation of a Modular re-configurable Laser Process Head

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ModuLase (Development and Pilot Line Validation of a Modular re-configurable Laser Process Head)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-02-28

State-of-the-art fibre-delivered laser sources are an industrially accepted tool for performing a range of materials processing applications. Despite the unrivalled capability of fibre-delivered laser sources to perform a wide range of processes, the potential flexibility of the laser source is limited by the need to change the processing head for these processes to be performed. The majority of industrial laser systems are employed to perform low-variety and high-volume manufacturing operations. However, current manufacturing trends (such as increased automation, individualisation and next-shoring) are driving the need to develop manufacturing systems which are capable of performing a higher variety of manufacturing operations.

The specific objectives of the ModuLase project are to develop a re-configurable highly flexible processing head system, capable of covering welding, cladding and cutting, compatible with existing and future fibre-delivered laser process systems. ‘Plug and play’ solutions for automated changing of end-effectors in <1 minute are being developed. The ModuLase process head system will also include intelligent sensor technologies for quality assurance and semi-automated process parameter configuration.
The development and pilot line validation of the ModuLase laser process head will unlock the potential flexibility of fibre-delivered laser sources and address a number of arising industrial challenges. These include:

• The rising need for flexible manufacturing systems, to support an increasing variety of product mixes.
• The need to maximise equipment utilisation rates, by eliminating down-time associated with changing of laser, processing heads and equipment stoppages and reducing capital investment costs.
At the beginning of the project, Partners focused on defining detailed specification of the laser process head, processes, process monitoring, and parameters for a range of high-value applications in the power, automotive and aerospace sectors; including the material specifications, quality standards, required throughput and estimated current manufacturing route costs.

Within the first 18 months of the project (first reporting period), the following technologies have been developed:
• A Beam Forming Unit (BFU), capable of delivering a wide-range of laser beam energy distributions (suitable for laser welding, cutting and cladding processes), has been designed and manufactured. The optical components within the BFU can be re-configured, thereby allowing different laser beam energy distributions to be produced without the need to change optical components.
• Modular ‘plug and play’ end-effectors, which can be rapidly attached to the BFU to provide the additional functionality required for the different processes. Three modular ‘plug and play’ end-effectors have already been designed and manufactured, one each for welding, cladding and cutting processes. These end-effectors add the process functionality required to support the individual processes (for example, inert cutting gas, powder/wire feed and/or plume control). The modular end-effectors are for a specified target range of applications, although the ‘plug and play’ system will allow further end-effectors to be developed post project.
• A quality assurance system suitable for welding, cladding and cutting processes, using a near-infrared (NIR) and Short Wavelength Infrared (SWIR) coaxial camera-based capability. The developed quality assurance system is being embedded into the ModuLase head, in order to assure process stability and also enabling to reduce additional time and costs involved in the process.
• Regarding the system and software integration activities, specifications of software modules and operator interface were defined.
Results until the end of the project will enable deliver a re-configurable highly flexible processing head system for welding, cladding and cutting processes; equipped with intelligent sensor technologies for quality assurance and semi-automated process parameter configuration.

The human-machine interface (HMI) characterising the ModuLase system, will comprise a knowledge database for quick process configuration (cladding, welding and cutting) and for reducing the expertise required to optimise the laser processes.

Potential impacts at the end of the project will include:
• Reduced capital investment costs; end- users will save as much as 59% when installing the ModuLase head (with three end-effectors considered in this project). Potentially higher savings are possible for organisations adopting more end-effectors.
• Maximise laser equipment utilisation rates by reducing down-time; laser sources require significant CapEx, and payback time is highly dependent on utilisation time. Current process heads take at 2 to 4hrs to changeover (usually done for damage rather than flexible manufacturing), during which the laser source is sitting idle and non-productive. The anticipated changeover time of <1 minute for the proposed ModuLase process head, improves utilisation rates. Furthermore, the ModuLase system will allow manufacturers to adopt parallel process cell layouts, rather than sequential process cell layouts; reducing the risk of production-line stoppages.
• Reduced running costs; as modular end-effectors can be easily and cheaply replaced, for example, during regular maintenance as part of quality control or when damaged. Current commercially available process heads have a fixed beam configuration, which means manufacturers have to buy new process heads when a specific laser head configuration is necessary. In the case of the ModuLase system, reconfiguring the BFU to match the required beam configuration will save time and cost. The integrated quality assurance system will also help to minimise, if not eliminate, defects and therefore save on re- work or scrappage.
Cutting, welding and cladding end effectors
Side-voew of modular process head
Quality assurance system - Real time image of melt pool area and defect detection
Modular process head for cutting, welding and cladding processes