We may not have light sabers yet, but robots and lasers are pretty cool

Putting a laser on the end of a robotic arm sounds like something out of science fiction, but it's a reality in today's manufacturing world.

We’ve all seen the movies where laser beams cut a building in half in one motion, or where people fight with swords made of lasers, but those things are, unfortunately, still just fantasy made up by Hollywood to entertain. Even so, lasers attached to the end of an industrial robot are quickly becoming a common thing in the manufacturing world and driving big changes in industry. Also, they are pretty cool.

Given the common misconceptions that surround lasers, it probably makes the most sense to start off with a description of what lasers are not. The ones we see in the manufacturing environment at the end of a robotic arm are not like light sabers and they cannot cut a table in half in one motion (although we have seen robotic art installations with light sabers).

The word laser itself started off as an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” Very simply, it’s a beam of concentrated light, and we are using the power of light to process parts in a manufacturing environment. When we fire a laser at the surface of something, we are heating that surface quickly and the material is either absorbing the energy, reflecting it or dissipating it throughout the material.

These days we can attached a laser to the end of one of our robots to make cuts on contoured surfaces as much as 6 mm thick. Everything from the metal in your car to other parts that you see in small consumer goods can be cut with lasers.

In the past, this kind of laser cutting was reserved for traditional machines that take up a lot of space and aren’t very flexible. But now we are making 6-axis robots that are very accurate and nearly match the precision and speed of the traditional machines in a much smaller floor space. These robotic solutions also have much lower up front investment costs, sometimes as much as 30% less, which means more and more manufacturers than ever can use them in their facilities and see the benefits of laser cutting.

ABB now has decades of experience in laser cutting with robots and we’ve developed innovations that can deal with small motions in the robots that might result in not-so-accurate cuts. At this point, with improved software, hardware and technical knowledge, laser cutting is something that almost any manufacturing company can implement easily. This ease-of-use and affordability is something that is leading a huge change in the way products are made for the consumer. Soon enough it may be that there it will be hard to find a material product that hasn’t been touched by a robotic laser at some point along the route to the consumer’s hands.

This week we’re showing off some of our advanced laser cutting demonstrations and I’ve been giving seminars on the topic during our 2014 North America Value Provider Conference. If you couldn’t attend in person, watch the video below to see some of the capabilities of robotic laser cutting.


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About the author

Jorge Isla

I've been with ABB for over 15 years working in different roles within the Robotics Business Unit. After starting as a service engineer, I'm now the Global Technology Manager for Welding and Cutting. I was born and raised in Mexico City, but have lived in many different countries while working with ABB and am fluent in English, Swedish, German and Spanish. My specialty is in using ABB's PC-based programming software, RobotStudio, to program complex welding and cutting operations. When I'm not working for ABB I play soccer, mountain bike and am a certified scuba diver.
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