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  Press Relase: The hydroform revolution - Laser-robots
Posted by: Börries Burkhardt on Friday, February 22, 2002 - 10:51 PM
All Topics Laser-robots are flexible devices for processing in the automobile industry. The integration of lasers and robots is an important element in the growing technology of hydroforming.

Five years ago there was minimal use of hydroforming by the automotive industry. Today, automotive chassis and component designers are introducing hydroformed members into their vehicles at such a rate that the market is doubling every two years. And the reasons are clear; hydroformed parts reduce weight, lower costs and provide a far higher-quality structure than conventional stamped and welded assemblies.

Picture: Laser-robots are flexible devices for processing in the automobile industry.

Hydroforming is the application of high fluid pressure internally to a hollow section, usually tube, forcing it outwards into a forming die. In this way a complex component can be produced in one operation eliminating the need for welding. An engine cradle, for example, can be hydroformed as a one-piece component compared to a six-part welded stamping fabrication, reducing the number and cost of manufacturing processes and saving over a third in weight. Also, with hydroforming the cross-sectional shape can be varied along its length to give the maximum structural integrity.

The process of hydroforming involves first bending the tube to the approximate shape required-such as the 'horseshoe' of an engine cradle—and then pre-forming and finish forming on a press designed for the purpose. The next operation is to trim and profile the ends of the hydroformed part and cut holes and other openings into the hollow section. Finally, a certain amount of bracketry may need to be welded onto the part.

One problem with a hydroform part is trimming the ends and cutting out holes accurately without distorting a product that is a complex 3D shape. The laser has proved to be the ideal solution for this operation. It produces an accurate dross-free finish with virtually zero loading during cutting, so the component is distortion-free and needs little in the way of fixturing. Also, there are no tools or tooling to wear out, so that quality stays constant throughout. Another important benefit of the laser is its flexibility. With no hard tooling required, cutouts can be readily changed almost on demand so that design modifications, different types and late customization can be accommodated with minimum lead or changeover time.

Because of the complex 3D form of a hydroform, presenting the laser head to the part is a difficult part of the process, and the articulated arm 6-axis robot is the perfect solution. This is particularly the case since the development of the Nd:YAG laser with a beam that is transmissible through flexible fiber-optic cables. These connect the remote fixed laser source to the laser head attached to the robot, which can be manipulated in 3D space within the work envelope.

Integration of the laser and robot are important to the success of hydroform production. ABB, the world's leading supplier of robot systems, has recognized this and is working globally with hydroform press, laser, optics and other key equipment suppliers to develop and supply generic hydroform manufacturing solutions. Robotic applications in hydroforming will also be one of the development areas for the European Robot Laser Lab, recently set up by ABB in partnership with Permanova Systems in Sweden.

Robot accuracy is vital to trimming and cutting hydroforms and ABB has taken the lead in this area through developments in motion control technology and software functionality. Its robots offer the highest path accuracy on the market and can be delivered with 'absolute accuracy' software, which further improves path following accuracy. Unrivalled advanced laser processing functionality comes from the company's ShapeWare software package, which aids generation of both standard and non-standard shapes and is closely interfaced to both the cutting head and the laser source.

Robotics is also a major contributor to the automation in other areas of hydroform production. At the front end robots are used to handle the tube raw material and load/unload the hydroform presses. At the final stages robots often undertake the welding of bracketry and other additional items to the hydroform. ABB has packaged robot, weld equipment and software to ensure the most cost-effective solution.

The company's commitment to hydroforming can be seen in a massive project currently under way by Tower Automotive, a leading manufacturer of structures, suspension and body components for the automotive industry. It involves more than 50 lasers, supplied by GSI Lumonics, which puts the value of the lasers and peripherals at $12 million.

There are three lines, which currently are in the model pre-production stage; two at Tower's manufacturing facility in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and one at Metalsa in Mexico with whom Tower has a joint venture. The Milwaukee plant has a total of 260 ABB robots. Laser cutting of the hydroforms on the lines in Milwaukee as well as at Metalsa is done using IRB 2400 robots.

These lines are to produce sidemembers, crossmembers and other structural components for a new Dodge Ram pick-up introduced by DaimlerChrysler at the 2001 Chicago Auto show and due to be available later this year. It was noteworthy in the announcement that the use of a hydroformed frame was featured as a means to improve ride and road handling. Chrysler claims the hydroformed frame gives a 400 percent increase in torsional stiffness compared to the current model.

The manufacturing lines at Tower and Metalsa are flexible and capable of producing several different models. Robots add to the flexibility and provide the ability to perform immediate changeover from one model to another. Various features are laser cut, mainly round but with some odd shapes, and lasers trim the ends.

Dick Lefebvre, project manager, Ram Assembly at Tower says, "We have had the vision of laser cutting structural components for ten years and have been following and driving the laser and robot technologies to finally be where they are today. The last three years have seen a concentrated effort to bring this technology into the manufacturing arena. We now need to make it work."

Before deciding on lasers, Lefebvre and his team extensively evaluated other hole-making processes such as waterjet, HyDefinition plasma and piercing. He says, "Advantages (of laser cutting) include total flexibility to move the feature and change its size and shape. Furthermore, lasers minimize engineering change costs and allow quick response to customers' needs and requirements. There is no inflexible and costly hard tooling. Everything is done with software. Robots also offer complete flexibility over hard tooling. Late engineering changes can be immediately accommodated, and tuning can take place to match other processes."

The potential for hydroforming within the automotive as well as by other industries is enormous, and is set on a rapidly expanding growth path.

For further information on ABB, call +1 (800) 242-3722 or e-mail abbwelding@us.abb.com.

Published with permission of ABB.


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