Cutting high-thickness metal sheets is a basic manufacturing process common to a wide range of industrial sectors, from heavy carpentry to ship-building. Laser-cutting technology ought to have significant advantages over traditional cutting processes: high cutting speed, no tool wear and a reduction in the transfer of energy to the piece of metal being cut. Yet despite the fact that commercial laser-cutting systems have been on the market for a decade, their use has not become widespread.
The problem lies in the extreme sensitivity of the process to external disturbances and in the difficulties in controlling and tuning the variables of the laser-cutting process. These make it difficult to predict and model the cutting trajectory that the laser beam should follow. Even very slight changes in the metal's chemical composition can halt the cutting process, bringing production to a standstill. Consequently the process has to be constantly monitored and adjusted by human operators.
The three partners of project E! 1784 EUROLASER PUBLICS have devised a commercial solution: a fully automated, high power laser-cutting robot capable of continuously cutting metals up to 20mm thick in 2D and 3D. A key innovation in the process is to simulate the cut first, to guarantee accuracy. The system enables manufacturers to dispense with human supervision as sensors automatically correct any anomalies in the cutting process.
The result is a robotic system which will expand the use of lasers beyond the current supervised, small-scale applications into highly automated high volume manufacturing, and at much the same price as traditional laser-cutting systems. European manufacturers will have a cost-effective precision cutting tool which guarantees high cutting quality and uninterrupted production - crucial factors in gaining and maintaining a competitive advantage.
"EUREKA's endorsement was invaluable - it allowed us to obtain the official funding necessary to get the project successfully to completion"
"The two frontiers of laser-cutting machinery are quality and robustness and our solution advances both of these," says Piero Chiabra of Italian lead partner Prima Industrie S.P.A., the leading European manufacturer of industrial robots for welding, cutting and laser applications. "Industrial laser cutting will now have a higher presence worldwide and is expected over the next 5 to 10 years to achieve even better performances, to the point of eventually replacing existing punching machines in the thin metal sheet market."
Prima Industrie will be marketing the machines worldwide and some are already on the market. The project has officially finished, but work continues on fine-tuning the machines, with the final product expected to be ready for market at the end of 2004.
"The company anticipates a significant increase in turnover as a consequence of the project," says Chiabra. "The market has grown faster than expected. Before the project we forecasted sales of the system would reach 60 a year by 2006, but this prediction is already out of date.
"EUREKA's endorsement has been invaluable - it allowed us to obtain the official funding necessary to take the project to completion. For the partners, it was a mutually beneficial relationship and we plan to work together again. We hope shortly to announce a new project, E! 2791 FACTORY PAMELA, to develop a very high performance laser system for cutting metal sheet."