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History of the Industrial Robot

Industrial robots have become an integral part of the manufacturing world. While robots have seen a rapid incline in their use in more recent years, they have actually been on production lines for several decades.

The Early Years of Industrial Robots 1937-1979

It may be surprising for many to learn the first known industrial robot dates back to 1937 when Griffith “Bill” P. Taylor built his crane-like device. Taylor’s robot was comprised of mostly Meccano parts and was powered by a single electric motor with 5 axes of movement. In 1938 the device was published in Meccano Magazine as it was the first device capable of automating the stacking of wooden blocks from pre-programmed patterns.

In 1954 the first industrial robotics patent was placed by George Devol, who would become known as the “Father of Robotics.” In 1956 Devol partnered with Joseph F. Engelberger to form the company Unimation. Unimation would be the first company to produce industrial robots. Their robots were often referred to as programmable transfer machines since their main capability was to transfer objects from one point to another within 12 feet or less.

In 1962 Unimation started the robotic automation of the automotive industry with the release of their UNIMATE robot. UNIMATE was the first industrial robot to be installed by a large automotive manufacturer when GM installed it in their New Jersey plant. UNIMATE was used by GM for die casting, material handling, and spot-welding applications. After seeing the success of their first UNIMATE robot, GM went on to purchase over 60 more units for their plants.

A few years later in 1969, Victor Scheinman invented the Stanford Arm at Stanford University. The Stanford Arm was the first 6-axis all electric robot designed as a robot arm solution. The Stanford Arm expanded the integration of robots to more sophisticated applications such as assembly and arc welding with its accuracy.

In the 1970s the development of industrial robots started to become more advanced and more manufacturers began to enter the robotics market. In 1973, German manufacturer KUKA built their first robot called FAMULUS. FAMULUS was one of the first articulated robots with 6 electromechanically driven axes. A year later in 1974 the Silver Arm was developed at MIT for small parts assembly by Victor Scheinman. What set the Silver Arm apart from other robots is it utilized touch and pressure sensors for feedback during operation and was controlled by a minicomputer. Scheinman founded the robotics company Vicarm to build his Silver Arm robots before eventually selling his designs to Unimation.

In 1975, another European company jumped into the robotics market when ASEA introduced their IRB 6. The IRB 6 was the first all-electric micro-processor-controlled robot and it was built with Intel’s first chipset. Then in 1978, Unimation along with GM developed the PUMA robot arm (Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly). The PUMA robot was developed from Scheinman’s designs he sold to Unimation and it became common in assembly line productions.

Additional robotic milestones took place towards the late 1970s. The Motoman L10 was built by Yaskawa in 1977. The L10 was a 5 axes robot capable of lifting 10 kg with its gripper. In 1979 the first servo gun technology for spot welding applications was introduced by Nachi. Also, in 1979, OTC Japan released the first line of dedicated arc welding robots.

The Modern Era of Industrial Robots 1980-Present

Starting in the 1980s the growth of industrial robots began to skyrocket with new robots being introduced almost monthly. In 1981, the first robots with motors installed in their arm joints was developed by Takeo Kanade. Motorizing robot arm joints was a huge advancement as robot speed and accuracy greatly improved.

In 1988, Yaskawa America Inc. introduced the world to the Motoman ERC controller. The ERC control system was the first to be able to control up to 12 axes. This was the highest number of axes controlled by a single robot controller at the time. In 1992, FANUC designed their prototype for the first intelligent robot.

A few years later, Yaskawa upgraded their ERC controller to control up to 21 axes, only to out-do themselves again in 1998 when they raised the number of controlled axes to 27 with the ERC. Yaskawa also added the capability of the ERC controller to synchronize up to four robots per one controller. Also, in 1998, Yaskawa introduced their UP series comprised of a simpler robotic design to ease maintenance. The UP series would be extremely successful for Yaskawa Motoman with many models still available today in the second-hand marking, including the Motoman UP50N.

In the early 2000s robotic companies began to further expand the application of robots with the introduction of cobots. KUKA was the first major manufacturer to release a cobot to market with their LBR 3 in 2004. In the years following additional manufacturers developed cobot lines including Universal Robots, FANUC, and ABB. Cobots forever changed robotics as they made it possible for humans and robots to work collaboratively without any barriers.

Today’s robots are more sophisticated and intelligent than their predecessors. ASEA went on to become European robot giant ABB, who has developed several lines of IRB robots that are known for their efficiency and versatility. ABB has seen tremendous success with their ABB IRB 6640. FANUC has become the top robot manufacturer in the world with the strongest 6-axis robots. Their FANUC R-2000ib is one of the most commonly installed robots worldwide. While Motoman has developed into the world leader of welding robots with their precise arc welding line that includes the popular Motoman MA1400.

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