Research center highlights laser welding

KUKA North America is investing in growth by opening the KUKA Development Center (KDC) at its headquarters in Sterling Heights near Detroit. Specializing in joining technologies like laser welding, the KDC becomes the second dedicated research center within the KUKA Systems Group, along with the KUKA TechCenter located at global headquarters in Augsburg. The KDC's mission includes adapting KUKA-branded solutions and new technologies for use by the company's North American automotive, energy, aerospace and logistics markets as well as entirely new markets. Other services include process development, training, and safety certification.

The center opened with a full compliment of joining technologies including the latest generation of lasers and robotics and draws on the extensive knowledge and expertise of the work force at KUKA facilities in the Detroit area, including the over 250 technical employees. A great deal of the KDC's work will be related to the company's core automotive business, but it also supports the energy, aerospace and logistics divisions, including the dedicated R&D activities and cells operated within each. Already, it has helped adapt existing KUKA technology for use by two North American photovoltaic panel makers.

Peter Busuttil, director of technology for KUKA North America and head of the KDC, says the center's opening comes at a time of great need and opportunity. "Many of our customers have lost a lot of their internal funding--- and with it a portion of their expertise and R&D capacity. We enable that for them."

Laser joining is well-accepted in Europe and beginning to generate significant interest in North America. The center is working closely with automakers on adapting laser welding technologies. The automakers must reduce production costs, maximize product quality to win over consumers, and meet tougher fuel efficiency and vehicle rollover safety standards. Laser joining can allow them to use more high strength steel and more aluminum in a vehicle for a stronger yet lighter weight body. It also allows designers to eliminate content like flanges that exist solely for joining sections using traditional resistance spot welding. Laser welding and brazing can improve the vehicle's look and finish and in recent years has gained a cost advantage over resistance welding.
The KDC is drawing on KUKA's European experience with laser welding of steel and its own expertise in aluminum welding and joining different types of metal. Vendors of lasers and robot end effectors are partnering with the KDC to develop new automation solutions, not only for automakers but other industries, says Busuttil.

Though focused on North American customers, the KDC expects to contribute to the company's worldwide knowledge base and products. "We cross-pollinate technologies with our colleagues in Germany," says Busuttil. "Whatever we develop here, we will apply overseas as well."

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