Flexible and Reconfigurable Laser Processing Tool (FlexLase)

Lead Research Organisation: Loughborough University
Department Name: Wolfson Sch of Mech, Elec & Manufac Eng


Laser processing of metals and alloys is extensively used in modern manufacturing for various applications including
drilling, cutting, welding, surface modification, etc. Industrial robots are currently used for some laser processing
applications like cutting and welding where the allowable tolerance limit is around 100 micron. However, applications like
laser drilling requires a positional accuracy around 20-25 microns which is not feasible with existing robotic systems and
hence is mostly performed using expensive CNC based systems. This project aims to develop a flexible robotic laser
processing system which can have a position accuracy of less than 20 micron, and that can be used for most laser
applications including laser drilling.
By exploiting the speed and precision of modern CCD cameras, the positional error of the robot will be calculated based on
the coordinates (of the laser interaction point and a reference point) obtained from the CCD camera. The CCD camera will
be co-axial to the nozzle exit. The positional error calculated by the vision system will be compensated by offsetting the
laser beam and nozzle position, through a novel mirror and optical assembly.
The project will initially undertake proof-of-principle experiments to establish the positional error from the CCD camera
image. A new algorithm will be developed to extract the real-time positional error from the CCD camera image and to
facilitate compensation of the error by offsetting the laser beam position. National Instruments (NI) real-time module along
with a NI CompactRIO system will be used to achieve the required cycle time (less than 10ms). Finally, the CCD camera
and the software will be integrated with the robot and the nozzle assembly, to achieve a truly flexible manufacturing
The immediate application will be on robotic laser drilling of aerospace combustion chambers. It is expected that the
FlexLase system will be more accurate and affordable than the systems at present and that it will also open the door for
exciting new robotic applications in bio-technology and semiconductor industries.

Planned Impact

The proposed project on development of high precision robotic laser systems is expected to have a significant impact at
many levels. This project concerns the development of a novel vision system and nozzle assembly as a generic product
that can be mounted on any robot with fibre delivered laser. This project is not limited to one specific application of flexible
laser processing tools, but designed to have a wide range of applications and is expected to open up opportunities to be
applied to a variety of problems in modern manufacturing.
At a global level, it addresses the need for an environmentally sustainable flexible manufacturing tool, by providing an
attractive alternative to current CNC based manufacturing tools that are heavy, expensive and use more resources
compared to FlexLase (e.g. a laser processing tool based on robot weights 18 times less than a CNC laser processing tool,
consuming 12 times less energy). Implementation of robot based FlexLase system will result in a saving of 4.3 tonne of
steel per system (compared to a CNC based system) which takes 2700MJ/ton to produce. The development and
implementation of this flexible robotic system will reduce the number of different machine tools needed in a manufacturing
company. More importantly, the proposed flexible robotic cell can easily accommodate any change of components (e.g.
geometry, size; shape complexity), which may not be the case with CNC based machine tools.
At the national level, the output of the project has the potential to stimulate UK industries and facilitate job creation. The
immediate beneficiaries of FlexLase technology will be SMEs in the aerospace supply chain, using lasers for drilling of
aerospace components. Drawbacks associated with the traditional manufacturing process restrict the affordability of CNC
based machine tools within UK SMEs. The outcome of the project will enable UK manufacturing industries to access stateof-
the-art FlexLase technology and will allow UK industries to be competitive. This will stimulate the entire market sector,
will attract new investment and will provide a boost to the UK economy as a whole. The current laser market in the UK is
estimated at ~£332m with envisaged annual growth of ~7.2% over the next 5 year period. FlexLase aims to address ~20%
of the UK's market over the first two years of its implementation, which would results in at least £12m of savings per year to
UK economy (in terms of capital and energy cost).
Social benefits range from new UK jobs in the HVM industry, to contributing to a sustainable use of resources. Successful
implementation of FlexLase will significantly reduce the capital expenditure which will facilitate the intake of manpower and
increased job opportunities. One job per 5 machines (with a cost saving of ~£2.5m) can result in around 20 new jobs in the
first year of its implementation.


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Marimuthu S (2019) Millisecond fibre laser trepanning drilling of angular holes in The International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technology

Description The project investigated how to improve the accuracy of industrial robots without significantly increasing the complexity and cost of the sensing system. The FlexLase project has developed new robot calibration and online error compensation methods using commercially available optical tracking technology. This has been demonstrated to improve the accuracy of typical industrial robots from >1.0 mm to 0.5 mm. This is important for robotic applications in variation sensitive process such as laser welding and drilling. The use of an industrial robot combined with the online error compensation method allows much greater process flexibility and reconfigurability compared to traditional CNC machines while reducing the cost of the system significantly.
Exploitation Route The results of the project can be directly used to improve the accuracy of other robotic processes. Further research will be required to use a network of 2D camera systems to achieve online path compensation below 0.1 mm. The findings of FlexLase have indicated that this can be realistic extrapolating the results of the 2 camera system used.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Electronics,Energy,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport

URL http://www.the-mtc.org/FlexLase/overview
Description Digitally enabled ultrasonic assisted robotic machining demonstrator - RoboMade
Amount £937,566 (GBP)
Funding ID 103985 
Organisation Innovate UK 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2018 
End 11/2020
Description University of Nottingham Feasibility Study Grant
Amount £69,000 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 12/2017
Description Demonstration Robot Cell - Advanced Manufacturing Show at the NEC 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Demonstration of FlexLase laser cutting approach to an industrial audience to generate interest in the overall solution as well as the contributing key technology elements from all the project partners. The exhibition was very well attended with a good level of interest over the duration of the event. No direct follow ups have yet been established but positive feedback was received that indicates a market opportunity.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017