When people think of automation today, they think of lost jobs, limitless production rates, and mindless robots. Still, many of these fears stem from a lack of knowledge—specifically about the robots themselves. This brief history of industrial robots will help explain and clarify the role of robots in manufacturing today.
In the Beginning (1937-1972)
The earliest example of industrial robotics came about in 1937 after inventor Griffith P. Taylor built a crane-like device powered by a single electric motor. It had five axes of movement. Most important were the grab and rotation functions, which could stack blocks in pre-programmed movements. Then, in 1954, developer George Devol applied for the first robotics patent. His company, Unimation, produced the first manufactured industrial robots—then called “programmable transfer machines”—to transfer objects from one location to another. These machines used hydraulic actuators and joint coordinates for accuracy, although this would later prove to be false methodology as repeatability indicates stronger robotic performance. Kawasaki Heavy Industries and GKN soon licensed this technology for their own industries. Japanese manufacturers soon produced their own line of robots to compete against Unimation’s stranglehold over the market. By the following decade, in 1969, robotics pioneer Victor Scheinman invented an all-electric arm that could accurately follow spatial paths and perform articulate tasks, like assembly and welding. He sold this design to Unimation, which, with help from General Motors, manufactured their own industrial robotic arm called PUMA.
Streamlined Popularity (1973-Present)
Industrial robotics soon became an ever-present force in manufacturing facilities across the globe. After the success of the robotic arm, in 1973, European manufacturers developed an all-electric microprocessor-controlled robot. This innovation furthered interest in robotics and their practicality. General Electric, General Motors, and other large-scale U.S. companies wanted in on these technological advancements. Given this brief history of industrial robots, they can provide many benefits to companies worldwide today. They haven’t replaced the human worker in many positions and industries, increasing both safety and production. Robots and their human counterparts work together to enhance the extensive productivity in manufacturing.