WESTMINSTER -- Teaching a manufacturing robot to make an identical cut on certain materials can be difficult, but a local firm is proving it's not impossible if the robot is properly programmed.
With the help of researchers from the University of Maryland and a $50,000 grant, employees at Laser Applications Inc. are working to improve their manufacturing processes.
The Westminster-based manufacturing firm was recently awarded the matching grant from the Maryland Industrial Partnership program (MIPS) for its phase II robotics control system project.
MIPS distributes matching funds and pairs University of Maryland researchers with companies that have ideas for using the latest technology.
"The grant will offer us the opportunity to do some high-level programming operations [for the robotics control system project] very quickly and efficiently," said Scott Saunders, a manager at LAI. "We will be able to develop an easy-to-operate motion-control system for the company's XR 6050 gantry robotics system."
LAI, in Westminster's Air Business Center off Route 97, is a precision non-traditional machining company that uses lasers, electrical-discharge machining and high-pressure water jets.
Companies including Martin Marietta, United Container, Westinghouse and General Electric subcontract LAI to machine parts for their programs.
LAI, which was started in Baltimore in 1979, originally used lasers to manufacture parts from wood, plastic, steel, aluminum and composites.
Water jets, the company's newest machining technique, were integrated as a tool in 1986.
"We thought that water jets would be a complement to the lasers we were already using," Mr. Saunders said. "Lasers typically do not cut well beyond a thickness of one-half-inch, and frequently we can cut the same materials with a water jet. Water jets can cut materials up to six inches thick."
A water jet is a high-pressure water release injected with abrasives. By advancing the water-jet technology, through the aid of the MIPS grant, LAI will be able to use the application for low-quality production of custom parts.
"We will have the opportunity to do some high-level development work on this system that otherwise would not happen," Mr. Saunders said.
"Researchers from the University of Maryland will develop test application programs, which will be executed at the company's facilities. Company employees will then be trained in the use of the advance motion-control system," he said.
Eileen Shields, marketing manager with the county's Economic Development Office, said programs like MIPS can be essential to the success of small businesses.
"The Engineering Research Center promotes interaction in engineering and science between the University of Maryland and the business and industry community," Ms. Shields said.
"Once the grant is awarded, the university assigns the services of a researcher. This is great for small companies that do not typically have a research and development staff or a researcher," she said.
The Maryland Industrial Partnership program is one of four programs administered through the University of Maryland's Engineering Research Center.
LAI received similar funding from MIPS last year for the first phase of the project.
LAI moved from Baltimore to Carroll County in 1984. It has about 30 employees and sales between $2 million and $4 million annually.