Super Cell

Handheld fiber laser welding and collaborative robotics come together in a highly productive cell

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IPG Photonics Corp. is well-known in the fabricating community for its innovative fiber laser technology. When the company’s new development came onto the scene, it made waves because of its ability to process a wider variety of metals more efficiently than any cutting technology before it. Twenty-plus years later and IPG is presenting a new innovation to the industry, one that may be just as revolutionary.

With LightWELD, IPG’s relatively new handheld fiber laser welding technology, users can produce high-quality welds up to four times faster than many traditional arc welding processes. The handheld laser welder’s speed comes from the laser beam’s high level of concentration, which also minimizes heat input and, in turn, keeps post-processing requirements low. And if that weren’t enough, the new welder is incredibly easy to use, which is a major bonus in an era where finding skilled welders has become an ongoing challenge.

When handheld laser welding was introduced to the market, automation integrators understood that safety would be an important element of their future welding cell designs.

To augment this new welding technology, Brian Knopp, founder of Cobot Systems, introduced another industry disruptor to the mix: Universal Robots (UR). By configuring a welding cell that features a UR cobot, Knopp is taking the quality and labor-saving benefits of LightWELD to the next level. Recently, Knopp provided the team at Welding Productivity with details behind the new cell and what led to its development.

How did you become involved in the world of cobot automation?

While helping to build and manage a vertically integrated energy services company, we began to feel the effects of the labor shortage back in 2016 and decided to pursue automation for our shop. I was surprised to find there were no products on the market addressing high-mix, low-volume CNC machine tending applications. As I immersed myself into researching automation technology, I learned about UR and the challenges associated with designing, integrating and commissioning a customized automation solution.

In those early days, it was next to impossible to find a one-stop shop for all the required accessories needed. By chance, in March of 2018, I connected with Anders Kjempff of EasyRobotics via LinkedIn and flew to Denmark to meet with him and his team to see the cobot stands they developed for machine tending. I was immediately blown away with the product and knew at that moment a large piece of the puzzle was solved. I returned home with an exclusive contract to be the sole importer of EasyRobotics products for the United States.

Shown here is the interior of Cobot Systems’ welding cell where the actual laser welding is carried out via IPG’s LightWELD device and Universal Robots’ cobot.

The next day, I quit my job of 25 years, formed a new company, and with the support of Justin Griffin, current UR regional segment manager of machine tending, and Matt Paioletti, product sales manager for Neff Automation (a distributor of UR), quickly became a certified systems integrator for UR. I introduced what I think was the first standardized CNC machine tending system that could be delivered fully assembled and up and running within three to five days. In August of 2019, ProCobots was acquired by Hurco Cos. ProCobots products are now fully integrated with the Hurco control and sold internationally through Hurco’s global machine tool distribution network.

In 2021, I founded Cobot Systems. Since then, me and my team have never looked back and have continued to refine our integration techniques that now enable us to deploy a system within one day. To date, we have deployed hundreds of systems across the country serving everything from small one-person job shops to large medical device manufacturing companies.

In early 2022, we became an authorized distributor for IPG Photonics and launched the cobot-guided laser welding cell at the Automate show in Detroit that same year. In December 2022, Cobot Systems was acquired by Continuim Equity Partners, a Pittsburgh-based private equity fund on a mission to make manufacturing and industrial businesses more successful. Continuim brings significant financial and operational resources to help accelerate our growth, and we are thrilled to be scaling Cobot Systems with Continuim while having so much fun interacting with cobots and lasers – some of the coolest technologies in manufacturing.

What inspired the development of the cobot-guided laser welding cell?

The UR cobot-guided LightWELD system was inspired by the need to optimize production TIG welding, which is a very slow and tedious manual process prone to distortion when welding light-gauge stainless steel sheet metal components. The LightWELD technology solved all the challenges associated with TIG welding, but was difficult to precisely control in some applications due to the fact that fiber laser welding is such a high-speed process.

Shown here is the exterior of Cobot Systems’ welding cell, a light-tight laser-controlled area that ensures the laser beam remains confined to prevent exposure to the beam.

By introducing the UR cobot, precise levels of control and path management are achieved resulting in superior weld quality with high rates of production. Our URCap software – which serves as a handshake between the UR cobot and its peripherals – is the icing on the cake that allows the cobot controller to dynamically set and adjust the welding parameters electronically via an Ethernet connection using proprietary communication protocols.

For what type of manufacturer is the cobot-guided laser welding cell best-suited?

Anyone doing TIG welding on laser cut sheet metal parts thinner than 3/8 in. should be switching over to laser welding. The benefits are simply overwhelming, and in some cases, even hard to believe. This technology is probably the biggest breakthrough in welding since welding was invented.

Compared to other popular welding techniques, laser welding offers a host of advantages. It’s important, however, for fabricators to consider all of the factors involved, such as joint fit-up before investing in a system.

Beyond those involved with TIG welding, the system would be useful for anyone looking for an energy-efficient system that offers high-precision, consistent results. Because fiber laser technology expands the range of metals and thicknesses that can be processed, the system is also ideal for fabricators that work with different metals on a regular basis. And, its speed makes it incredibly useful for high-volume jobs. Ultimately, it’s recommended to anyone looking for speed, reliability, precision, productivity and improved quality by eliminating distortion.

Are there any limitations?

Our laser welding systems are currently limited to materials up to 1/4 in. thick. IPG continues to expand its product line, though, by developing higher power laser welders that will continuously increase our capabilities.

What do potential users need to know about getting started with the welding cell?

Overall, the setup and learning curve are a piece of cake. It really only takes a few hours.

Finally, what safety protocols are required for the laser?

It’s essential to prioritize safety when working with laser welding systems, as they pose potential hazards to operators. Despite the fact that the laser beam is invisible to the human eye, the risks associated with laser welding are similar to those found in other welding processes although enhanced due to the hazards associated with potential reflectivity of the laser beam.

here are several factors to consider when comparing laser welding to other popular joining methods. As an example, some might be surprised to learn that laser welding can be easier to automate than TIG welding.

When laser welding is conducted in a purpose-built machine, it is usually enclosed in the machine with safety mechanisms and laser-proof glass. However, with the advent of handheld laser welding, safety measures are becoming more detailed and important. The primary safety measures manufacturers should implement for their laser welding processes include a light-safe enclosure with safety locks in compliance with applicable federal regulations, proper PPE, proper ventilation and mandatory employee training.

It is also essential to provide comprehensive training and education to all operators involved in laser welding to ensure they are familiar with the potential risks and safety protocols. A safety-conscious approach not only protects individuals from harm but also contributes to increased productivity and efficiency in the welding process. In fact, when you buy a laser welding system like the LightWELD, the manufacturer requires your team to take a training course. Upon completion, you receive a code to activate the laser welding power source to start using it.

System safety

The IPG LightWELD handheld fiber laser welder includes built-in safety features. Primarily, the gun must be in contact with the part to be welded before the process is initiated. This prevents the laser from pointing at anything other than the intended target.

In general, laser welding systems are equipped with built-in safety features to ensure a secure working environment. The LightWELD handheld system also includes:

  • A key required for laser on/off
  • A two-step laser operation trigger (enable and fire)
  • A part head contact safety circuit

Beyond the system itself, a fundamental safety practice for laser welding is to establish a light-tight laser-controlled area, which ensures that the laser beam remains confined, preventing any accidental exposure. One thing to remember about a designated laser-controlled area is that it’s essential to clearly mark this area with proper signage indicating the potential hazards present. This serves as a constant reminder for individuals entering the area to exercise caution and follow the necessary safety protocols.

In addition to establishing a controlled area, a welding cell should be equipped with safety interlocks linked to the laser welding power source. Interlocks are designed to shut down the laser system if the door is opened. By implementing interlocks, the laser welding process can be automatically halted if any unsafe conditions are detected. The risk of accidents or injuries is minimized.

Operators involved in laser welding should always wear appropriate PPE to safeguard themselves from potential hazards, including:

  • Laser-safe goggles (for redundancy) specifically designed for laser applications to protect the eyes from the intense laser beam
  • A helmet with a filter that shields against laser radiation to protect the face and head
  • Gloves
  • Long sleeves
  • Work boots

Welding system manufacturers usually provide this specialized equipment. Gloves, long sleeves and proper work boots are, of course, basic welding protection.

By adhering to these laser welding safety measures, companies can prioritize the well-being of their workers while maximizing the benefits of laser welding technology.

Cobot Systems

IPG Photonics Corp.

Universal Robots

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