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Multi-functional laser head to optimise sheet metal processing

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A robot-controlled laser processing head capable of performing cutting, welding and additive manufacturing is under development that will bring significant productivity and quality gains to sheet metal processing.

The technology, which is being developed within the ‘MultiPROmobil’ project, will target the production of sheet metal component assemblies in hybrid lightweight construction and electromobility – where fast-changing products, fluctuating batch sizes and innovative production concepts require the balancing of both flexibility and productivity.

Coordinated by Fraunhofer ILT, the MultiPROmobil project began in November 2018 and will run for three years. The institute is developing the multi-functional processing head and robot technology together with Bergmann & Steffen, CAE Innovative Engineering and the laser processing and consulting centre LBBZ.

The technology is predicted increase engineering efficiency and reduce startup times (in the production of sheet metal component assemblies) by 30 per cent each, with unit costs and resource consumption also predicted to be reduced by at least 20 per cent.

The technology is being developed using a combi-head from German firm Laserfact, which in the future will not only be able to perform laser cutting and welding, but also additive manufacturing. The latter process already works with a replaceable nozzle module, however the project partners are currently working on optimising the combi-head in such a way that it can execute all three processes in a production plant ‘on the fly’ – without changing the optics or nozzles.

The project is also focused on developing intelligent design and simulation software for optimising the process chain. With ‘Digital Twins’, CAE Innovative Engineering can digitally image machines, processes and components to be produced, so that key figures of the process chain can be identified and improved. 

Once developed, the processing head, robotics and software will be tested in an industrial environment at LBBZ, where they will be used to produce semi-bionic vehicle structures. As the first application example, the triangular control arm of an electric vehicle will be optimally designed and cut, then welded and reinforced with additive structures, all without a single tool change.

The welding and cutting capabilities of the technology are already being used in industry, for example when cutting and welding strip ends in coating and inspection lines of the steel industry, as well as when producing high-precision metal assemblies. 

With the further development planned for the combi-head, the technology will appeal in particular to the small- and medium-sized companies that are set to make an important contribution to the future market of e-mobility, according to the partners.

The MultiPROmobil project is funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

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