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New lenses expand use of high-power lasers.

General Electric researchers have demonstrated that the intense beam of light from a stationary laser can be channeled through a needle-thin glass fiber to an industrial robot more than 25 yards away, enabling the machine to cut, weld, and drill with a dexterity never before possible.

This capability--which could provide a major boost in manufacturing flexibility and productivity--has been demonstrated at the company's Research & Development Center in Schenectady, NY, with the aid of a specially outfitted GE robot.

In initial tests, GE's experimental laser/robot setup has demonstrated an ability to cut intricate patterns in steel, titanium, and nickel-based alloys at speeds of up to 10 ipm. Its fiber-optic cable can carry in excess of 10,000 W of peak power (400 W average) from the laser to the workpiece. Could feed several stations

Ultimately, a single laser could be fed to several robots working simultaneously at separate workstations. One robot could be cutting, another welding, a third heat treating, and a fourth drilling holes. With this approach, a single robot could even be programmed to do both cutting and welding.

At present, fiber optics (flexible cables of glass or quartz) are utilized primarily in communications, to transmit audio, video, and data signals. The cables also are used in optical devices employed to inspect inaccessible locations--within turbines, for example.

Until now, attempts to transmit high-power laser light through fiber-optic cables have met with only limited success. This is because of the difficulty in feeding the intense laser energy into the small-diameter fibers without damaging their protective cladding. The cladding, generally comprised of glass or silicone, protects the surface of the fiber from contamination.

GE's research team met this challenge by devising a proprietary input coupler--an optical assembly that downsizes the 3/4"-dia laser beam to the 1000-micron (0.04") size of the glass fiber within the cable. At the output end of the cable, a lens assembly focuses the laser energy onto a tiny spot on the workpiece. Over 400 W

In a series of experiments, the GE researchers were able to deliver in excess of 400 W of average power from a neodymium-yttrium aluminum garnet (YAG) laser via the fiber-optic cable. This is about twice the energy level of the best previously reported attempts, or more than enough power to perform many of the laser materials-processing tasks in a typical large manufacturing facility.

Although high-intensity lasers are widely used in industry, they must rely on hard optics--lenses, prisms, and mirrors--to steer and deliver their energy to the workpiece. Although some systems feature a remotely located laser serving more than one workstation, they require great care to set up and maintain.

Since beam movement is limited to one or two axes, the workpieces frequently must be rotated. This makes it difficult to work on parts with complex shapes.

By contrast, GE's new experimental system enables a laser beam to be directed at a workpiece from any direction and angle that the robot arm can achieve.

Several GE operating groups are considering the possibility of incorporating this novel laser/robot system in their factories.

For more details, write to: Gregory J McGarry, General Electric Co, Corporate R&D, P O Box 8, Schenectady, NY 12301 (phone number: 518-385-8515).
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Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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