History of Industrial Robotics

Mar 23 / Gavin Wride
The technological field of robotics has long enraptured the public, whether they cross the concept in the books they read, the movies they see, or the news they watch. The nebulous idea of robots has loomed on the horizon, inching ever closer as we near truly Artificial Intelligences.

But robots, or at least the idea of robots, have been around for millennia, and they have been used in manufacturing for decades. The world would be nowhere near as advanced as it is now if it weren’t for the people who invested time, money, and thought into robotics.

In this article we’ll give a brief introduction to the history of industrial robotics and how you could advance your involvement in this important field.  

Early Robotics

The idea for automating common processes has been around for some time. In 850 CE, three Persian brothers in Baghdad, Iraq created an illustrated book called Book of Ingenious Devices, in which they illustrate and explain some ideas on how to automate certain mechanisms. The book was filled with over a hundred different inventions that mostly used fluids to do things like play instruments, run fountains, and grab objects from underwater.

But this book isn’t the earliest instance of automation, at least in theory. The Banu Musa brothers were sponsored by Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom to retrieve Greek texts from various monasteries, basically anything they could find, and publish a book with those ideas in it. They ended up learning from these texts and included their own designs along with the ancient ones.  
This was one of the first steps towards achieving workable robots that could make human lives more efficient. The Renaissance era followed the text and took to forming its own ideas and machines. One of the most famous inventors of all time, Leonardo Da Vinci, created detailed plans for different automated machines. He even created an automated lion for the king of France.

Then, before the first industrial robot was designed, a Czech play in 1920 caused a paradigm shift in the public perception of robotics. In “Rossum’s Universal Robots”, a cohort of robots (“Robota” in Czech means forced labor) revolt against and kill their master before destroying all life on earth. The idea of robotics took a negative connotation that would take some work to overcome. But given the modern fear of Artificial Intelligence, we haven’t fully moved past this notion.

But once the first industrial robot arrived, people quickly accepted its capabilities and put it to work. 

1960-1980 

A native of Louisville, Kentucky by the name of George Devol became the “Grandfather of Robotics” because of his invention known as Unimate. Devol invented Unimate during the 1950s as he saw various forms of automation enter the factory floor. Devol wanted to create a machine that could function largely unsupervised.
This invention was the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm. The robot essentially functioned to pick things up and move them somewhere else. This simple process would go on to fundamentally change how manufacturing worked forever, dramatically increasing factory efficiency while protecting humans from dangerous actions and heavy lifting.

Devol applied for his patent in 1954, but it wasn’t granted until 1961. In that same year, General Motors adopted the technology and doubled their manufacturing speeds. With many other automotive companies later following suit. The following year, Devol worked with Joseph F. Engelberger, an engineer and entrepreneur, to found the first robotics company, Unimation. As savvy businessmen, Devol and Engelberger sold their product at a loss, knowing that demand would skyrocket. This invention turned the automotive industry on its head, enabling efficiency unlike anything it had seen before.

Unimation then took to sharing their invention by licensing the new technology around the world, most notably to Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan and GKN in the UK. Robotic innovation exploded worldwide. A hospital in Downey, California invented the Rancho Arm, a six jointed robotic arm originally designed as a prosthetic. Stanford University acquired the rights to the technology in 1963 and developed it further, making it one of the first computer-controlled artificial arms.

In 1968, Marvin Minsky developed a robotic arm at MIT that became known as the Tentacle Arm. With twelve joints and the ability to reach around objects, the robot moved like an octopus and thus earned the name. The product was designed to be mounted on a wall or ceiling and could lift the weight of a person.

The next year (1969) Victor Scheinman invented the first six axes arm that functioned entirely on electric power. The extra mobility of the axes allowed for more minute movements, opening up robotics to more tasks like welding and assembly.
The seventies saw a continuance of innovative advancements, taking the improvements from the previous decade and beginning to specialize them. Rather than just lifting and placing, the new technologies would allow for more intricate functions and speed up the manufacturing process even further. Robotic memory was also pushed further, allowing the robots to have more move sets memorized.

1974 was an important year in robotics for the sheer number of inventions that came out.

David Silver invented the Silver Arm at MIT. This new arm was equipped with touch and pressure sensors which allowed it to do small parts assembly in a factory. Because of its ability to sense things and redirect itself, this robot could perform movements like human fingers.

Additionally, ASEA in Sweden (later ABB) developed the IRB 6 which was the first microprocessor-controlled, all-electric production robot. Previously, hydraulics had dominated the industry for controlling the robots movements. This invention marked a milestone by showing the power of microchips. The IRB 6 had unprecedented precise movements and repeatability.

The same year brought FANUC’s first robot. The company had developed the computer numerical control (CNC) machine just two years earlier. They installed their new robot in their own factory and used it to make more of itself. FANUC would go on to become one of the leading names in the field of robotics.

Much more happened this year including Scheinman forming Vicarm Inc., Vicarm then developing the programming software language Variable Assembly Language (VAL) which would go on to be the foundation for all robot programming languages, the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) being founded, and more.

In 1978, Unimation used Vicarm’s technology (after their acquisition in 1977) to develop PUMA, or Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly. This machine could be programmed to meet the expectations of various factories. GM, for example, found that most of their parts weighed five pounds or fewer, so the PUMA could be modified to suit their needs and to increase efficiency. 

1980-2000

The automotive industry showered money in the field of robotics during the 1980s. General Motors spent more than 40 billion dollars funding the still new technology and incorporating it into their assembly lines. Robotics engineers also began developing machine vision, which would allow robots to visually distinguish between different objects.

In 1981, machine vision was introduced into production robots at General Motors Consight in Ontario. This new technology allowed the robots to determine which objects go where in an automated factory. For example, this robot at General Motors could distinguish between up to six different castings at a rate of 1,400 units per hour.

Much of the history of robotics in the 1980s saw acquisitions, partnerships, foundings, and other forms of business interplay. This back and forth by companies gave rise to shared information and innovation. Japan and the West continued to develop robots, working together in many instances.

Near the end of the decade (1998), Motoman inc. showcased everything the company learned up to that point as they released the ERC Control System. This updated system could control up to 12 axes which was more than anything else available on the market at that time. In addition to the widened control of axes, the system was also equipped with an electronic seam tracker and multi-layer functions. This improvement meant that the system no longer needed external sensors and seam tracking devices outside of the ERC product.

The 90s pressed on much like 80s before them: new companies formed, partnerships made, and advancements attained. This decade also saw many advancements in robotics outside of the manufacturing industry, with companies like Boston Dynamics being founded. One of the watershed moments in the 90s for industrial robotics came from FANUC establishing the first school of robotics in 1992. This school’s purpose was to expand the development of skills required to develop and attend to the robotics found on most factory floors.

Just as they did in 1988, Motoman introduced several advancements in the 90s. In 1994, Motoman broke ground in controls again with their MRC control system. This system improved upon their ERC advancement by enabling it to control up to 21 axes, or three robots simultaneously. Then, in 1998, they released the XRC control, able to run 27 axes and synchronize up to four robots at the same time.

2000s Till Now 

With the development of non-industrial robotics, the world took a vested interest in robotics during this time. With the Mars Exploration Rover Mission sending two rovers to the Martian surface in 2003, the public eye was riveted to the potential robots displayed to improve human knowledge, and human convenience saw its share of robotic innovations with the personal vacuum robot, Roomba (2003).

During this time, industrial robotics saw a decrease in overall innovation but a dramatic increase in output. That being said, some of the innovations of the early 2000s carried on up until today. In 2003, Motoman developed a human-sized robotic arm with 7 axes that had all the supply cables hidden within the arm of the robot. Along with this arm, they released a dual armed robot that functioned with 13 axes.

In 2004, Motoman, as they have been mentioned before, released an improved robot control system, the NX 100, which once again raised the standard, allowing for the control of up to four robots and 38 axes.
In 2006, an Italian robotics company, Comau, introduced the first Wireless Teach Pendant (WiTP). This development was the first application of wireless technology in the industry, allowing for the same functionality as a wired connection, allowing for a level of safety that had heretofore been inaccessible.

In 2007, KUKA in Germany launched the biggest industrial robot up to that time. This long range, heavy duty robot could carry a payload of 1,000 kilograms and dramatically expanded the application possibilities of industrial robots while simultaneously introducing a new class of movement and carry capacity.
The following year, FANUC pressed the limit by introducing the M-200iA, another heavy duty robot. This robot was able to carry payloads of up to 1,200 kg. The wrist strength of the M-2000iA has held records and can move large, heavy parts a wide distance with incredible stability.

The global recession of 2008 led to a widespread contraction of the industrial robotics industry, but some advancements continued despite the setback. In 2009, Motoman broke ground again in control systems when they released the DX100, which provided full synchronization control of up to eight robots and 72 axes.

2009 marked a turning point in the industrial robots industry when 60,000 industrial robots were shipped globally (something that would become an important indicator of growth in the following decade). This year also carried the milestone of the launch of the smallest industrial robot to date, ABB’s IRB120. This robot weighed only 25 kg and was a multipurpose robot. Despite the small size, the IRB120 could carry a load of 3 kg.

The 2010s came in the wake of the recession and brought with it a steady increase in industrial robot output. The world of robotics skyrocketed during this time, but industrial robotics didn’t see the level of innovation as in previous decades. That being said, robots slowly became more efficient and brought about both specialized and broadened capabilities.

Every year from 2010 to 2018 came with an increased amount of industrial robots shipped globally (except 2012). The decade began with 121,000 industrial robots shipped. The following year shipped 166,000. The regression of 2012 shipped only 159,000 units, but by 2018 the number of shipped industrial robots reached 421,000 robots. This continued increase of industrial robotics has led to a more efficient global market, a wider output of important products, and the broad potential for massive innovation in future years. Global output of robots is expected to continue to increase over the next few years. 

How to Participate 

With the incredible scale of robotics and the immeasurable potential for innovation, a career in robotics has intrigued many people. But, that interest in the field has not solved a problem that has been forming since the enormous output of industrial robots and rapid innovation in recent decades.

A skill gap has formed surrounding this technology and many more. With the cost of robotics lowering, demand has increased dramatically. As we’ve seen in the previous figures, the global use of robotics has, at times, risen exponentially. This increased demand for robotics globally has caused a strain on traditional education services, such as colleges and universities, while widening the chasm between what workers are capable of and what these companies employing robots need.

This space between what’s available and what’s needed has caused some disillusionment and pain in many people. Because of the speed of innovation in robotics, many universities struggle to teach the newest technologies. A young, eager mind may go through four years at a top university and still be behind industry standards. Additionally, the barrier to entry seems inaccessible with training courses costing thousands of dollars.

This pain and confusion has led to Open X stepping up to the plate with the goal of providing user-friendly, cost-efficient training that allows the user to quickly learn the skills they need to begin their careers in tech. We have taken a scientific approach to learning and teaching that enables the learner to take things at their own pace, learn in a variety of ways (audio, visual, tactile, and so on), and explore a variety of options before spending valuable time and money on obtaining a career.

We have the option for a free trial of our services, with access to many different courses including one on robotics. Our platform will help you learn the skills you need in robotics to start a successful and enjoyable career in the field. The free trial will let you see if our methods of teaching are right for you, and our courses will let you explore many different options in order to find your passion without breaking the bank.

If you have any interest in working in the field of robotics, use the free trial today to see if we can help you on your way to a satisfying career. With your ambition and our resources/connections to the industry, nothing can stop you from achieving the greatness you’ve always dreamed of.

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