April 11, 2005
Flexible Milling-Robot System Well-Suited For Prototype Production
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by Jeff Rowe - Contributing Editor
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Product ideas first start to take on tangible forms with models and prototypes. Production is either performed using time-consuming manual labor with low reproducibility or in a machining center with accordingly high costs. However, neither solution offers the flexibility that is desired in product development. In the particular, the implementation of modifications and variants requires much time and money. The new milling robot by ESCAD Systemtechnik offers interesting business alternatives.


The use of 3D CAD systems to design new products is on the rise. Even the most complex components can be developed using these systems. This, in turn, gives the designer much freedom to design the product. However, the options that CAD systems offer the developers must also be implemented in the production of models and prototypes. Sophisticated parts with complicated free-form surfaces are extremely challenging to produce. It was with this in mind that ESCAD Systemtechnik and KUKA Roboter GmbH worked together to come up with the idea of developing a milling robot to satisfy the high demands of form and flexibility. Oliver R�k, director of ESCAD Systemtechnik: "Industrial robots have
proven themselves through their flexibility in many areas of production. Since the models are available in digital form anyway, it must be possible to somehow program robots using a CAM system so that models and prototypes can be milled flexibly and economically. Our ROBOprot milling-robot system now provides proof that this is possible".


ESCAD Systemtechnik developed a milling robot in cooperation with KUKA Roboter GmbH of Augsburg and OPEN MIND Technologies AG, CAM provider from Munich. The system includes the robot equipped with a spindle, including switch cabinet and operator control panel and, depending on the needs of the customer, the system includes a tool changer, tool measurement, positioner for the part, suction unit and an enclosure. The robot is programmed using a normal PC with CAM software. Overall, this system is considered extremely flexible. Depending on whether the robot is installed standing or hanging, the work area (maximum component length, width, height) is 5500, 2050, 3850 mm. For example, an
automobile cockpit can be milled out of block without incident. Multiple spanning is not required. Each and every spot on the part can be reached by the robot arm, which can be moved in six axes. The system is constructed modularly of proven standard components -- one aspect that also guarantees clear and low procurement costs compared to machine tools.


In addition to the KR 60 HA robot that has been used up until now, the device can also be equipped with other KUKA robots, since the robot control unit (CAMrob) is the same for all KUKA models. Thus, the most varying device sizes can be implemented.


The robot works with a total of six movable axes. The system thus has very specific requirements for the CAM solution. With this in mind, OPEN MIND Technologies AG was able to offer a very powerful and flexible CAM concept. For example, hyperMILL makes all machining strategies ranging from 2D, 3D to 5-axis technology available in a simple, Windows-based user interface. Many aids, graphically supported control screens and plausibility controls for inputs simplify the CAM programming and orientation. Another plus was OPEN MIND's know-how in the field of postprocessors. Robot technology presented particular challenges in this regard. The spatial coordinates in the CAM program needed to be
converted to robot-specific coordinates. And, with six axes, this robot has more to offer than a conventional milling machine. This converted data was then imported into the robot controller using the KUKA postprocessors. hyperMILL in hyperCAD is an optimally coordinated combination of CAD and CAM software. Both 2D and 3D data can be processed with the hyperCAD CAD software so that the processing of 3D CAD data is possible. Add to this a series of direct and standard interfaces to other CAD systems. It is thus possible to import data from different systems and to process it in a high-quality manner -- another factor that also increases flexibility in product development.


With a repeat accuracy of 0.15 mm, the milling robot does not achieve the same accuracy as a milling machine, but for many types of machining, such as the production of models and prototypes, this accuracy is more than sufficient. Soft materials such as PU foam can be easily machined with the milling robot. Complex components made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic or glass-fiber reinforced plastic can also be machined. Due to its flexibility, all areas of even the largest components can be easily reached. By integrating an additional linear axis, the machining area can be extended to a length of over 10 meters. This creates the optimum conditions for machining parts for airplanes and
cars, machines and boats. In addition to milling and boring, the robot can also be used for drilling, sanding and polishing, trimming and cutting.


What this robotic machining system sacrifices in accuracy is made up for with flexibility and the ability to work in six movable axes. Working with KUKA and OPEN MIND, ESCAD was able to optimize the robot and the software to suit its unique purposes - prototypes and other types of models that don't require high degrees of precision. ESCAD Systemtechnik GmbH created the specialized, yet versatile, milling robot as part of a development partnership with KUKA Roboter GmbH and OPEN MIND Technologies AG. The actual milling work is programmed using the hyperCAD and hyper MILL CAD/CAM applications. An advantage of these applications is the fact that when used together, they can process 3D CAD data in a production machining environment. The software also provides several possible machining strategies, ranging from 2D through five axes. Expertise in postprocessors also played a decisive role in the project's success. Postprocessors are a vital part of the picture because they translate tool motion data from an NC programming system into a part program for a numerically controlled machine tool. When all the elements (part programming system, postprocessor program, and controller software or firmware) are working as they should, the machine tool under computer control produces machined parts as programmed by the part programmer. The technologies required for this robot must have
presented particular challenges, because the spatial coordinates of the CAM program had to be converted to the robot's own coordinate system using 6 axes - a pretty complex problem, but one that seems to have been solved by the collaborating partners.



Jeffrey Rowe is the editor and publisher of MCADCafé and MCAD Weekly Review. He can be reached here or 408.850.9230.



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