Walker, David D., Yu, G., Bibby, M., Dunn, C., Li, H., Wu, H. Y., Zheng, X. and Zhang, P. (2016) Robotic automation in computer controlled polishing. Journal of the European Optical Society: Rapid Publications, 11. p. 16005. ISSN 1990-2573

We first present a Case Study – the manufacture of 1.4 m prototype mirror-segments for the European Extremely Large Telescope, undertaken by the National Facility for Ultra Precision Surfaces, at the OpTIC facility operated by Glyndwr University. Scale-up to serial-manufacture demands delivery of a 1.4 m off-axis aspheric hexagonal segment with surface precision < 10 nm RMS every four days, compared with a typical year or more for an one-off part. This requires a radically-new approach to large optics fabrication, which will inevitably propagate into wider industrial optics. We report on how these ambitious requirements have stimulated an investigation into the synergy between robots and computer numerically controlled (‘CNC’) polishing machines for optical fabrication. The objective was not to assess which is superior. Rather, it was to understand for the first time their complementary properties, leading us to operate them together as a unit, integrated in hardware and software. Three key areas are reported. First is the novel use of robots to automate currently-manual operations on CNC polishing machines, to improve work-throughput, mitigate risk of damage to parts, and reduce dependence on highly-skilled staff. Second is the use of robots to pre-process surfaces prior to CNC polishing, to reduce total process time. The third draws the threads together, describing our vision of the automated manufacturing cell, where the operator interacts at cell rather than machine level. This promises to deliver a step-change in end-to-end manufacturing times and costs, compared with either platform used on its own or, indeed, the state-of-the-art used elsewhere.

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