Editorial Feature

Industrial Robot Technology

This article was updated on the 12th September 2019.

Phonlamai Photo / Shutterstock

An industrial robot is a manipulator designed with multiple functional capabilities to help with the manufacturing industry. Robotic co-workers were introduced into the manufacturing industry in 1961 by George Devol, co-founder of Unimation Inc. – the first robotics company and once one of the world’s largest. This early industrial robot concept was based on the idea of a machine performing basic functions like moving an object from point A to point B with little distance between the two points.

Unimation Inc. applied hydraulic actuators that were programmed to remember joint coordination and then repeat this mechanical behavior. Progress in this novel technology was painstakingly slow, and it wasn’t until 1975 when Unimation Inc. started to see a rise in profits. Viability of the concept of industrial robotic application in manufacturing became apparent with the use of the early industrial robot model. This model achieved over 100,000 hours of operation in manufacturing, an equivalent of 50 man years of hard labor – a strong argument for the application of an industrial multi-purpose manipulator.

One of the main justifications for the application of an industrial robot is the costs – robots are much cheaper to use in the manufacturing industry compared to humans. Despite the conservative approach to manufacturing in the early days of industrial robotics in the 1960s, the Japanese market began to invest a great deal of interest in the concept of multipurpose controllers. By 1971, the Japanese market paved the way for emphasizing the need to employ industrial robot technology by establishing the Japan Industrial Robot Association (JIRA), which was soon followed by the formation of the Robot Institute of America (RIA) in 1975.

The 1980s and 1990s saw considerable advances in the capabilities and commercial viability of industrial robots, including the installation of motors directly into the joint of the robotic arm. This was done by Takeo Kanade at Carnegie Mellon University in 1981, and also the introduction of the Motorman ERC control system – which could control up to 12 axes – by Yaskawa America Inc. in 1988, and FANUC group’s prototype intelligent robot in 1992. Since this revolution in the demand for robotic multi-controllers to aid manufacturing capabilities, industrial robotics has become a major focal point in national interest and will continue to do so as manufacturing procedures become more complex and more hazardous for human workers.

Types of Industrial Robots

Robots applied for industrial work are designed to have a number of links that are connected by joints. The end effector, typically known as a robot arm, is controlled by a central unit. The axes of the robotic arm are controlled by a movement called a degree of freedom. Any industrial robot that can articulate in a vertical fashion is designed to have six degrees of freedom.

Vertical Articulated Robot

  • Designed with multiple joints that connect to the base of the robot. Rotary joints are used to link the arm components.

The following video demonstrates the M-3iA system as an example of a vertically articulated industrial robot. The robot has six axes which are ideal for handling small objects and can work at high speed in sectors including the food, medical, pharmaceutical, and plastic molding industries. The M-3iA robot is built with a three-axis wrist, which is paramount for flexibility for this machinery.

Cartesian Robot

  • The Cartesian robot is designed to operate on three linear axes at right angles to each other. This type of industrial robot is engineered with arms that are connected by linear joint components.

Cartesian robots are used in many 3D printers, as well as having industrial applications as components of pick and place machines and plotters. The video below shows how Festo, a worldwide supplier of automation technology, utilizes Cartesian robot technology for high-speed picking systems.

SCARA Robot

  • The SCARA robot is more selective in its function and is ideal for manufacturers looking for an industrial robot with arms that can manipulate work with a great deal of precision. The robot can work in a cylindrical work zone and is designed with horizontal joints. SCARA robots are able to operate faster than equivalent Cartesian robots.

TM Robotics, a world leader in manufacturing industrial robots, has recently introduced a new Toshiba machine SCARA robot to the European industrial market, alongside systems integrator Evershed Robotics. The following video demonstrates the application of the SCARA robot in cosmetic handling and packaging. The robot has an arm length of 650mm and has a large working envelope with a combination of axis one and two providing 360° working area.

Cylindrical Robot

  • This type of industrial robot is designed with only one rotary joint at the base of the robot structure. There are also two linear joint components that connect the end effector.

The Hudson Robotics PlateCrane EX is a relatively new cylindrical robot arm used in laboratory automation. The video below demonstrates the application of this robot in handling labware.

Polar Robot

  • This robot can be distinguished by the twisting joint that connects the arm of the robot together with rotary and linear joints.

The comparatively complex polar robot design, one of the first robot arms introduced to industrial robotics, is rarely used today due to the increased flexibility of articulated and other kinds of industrial robots.

Delta Robot

  • The delta robot is structurally based on rotational joints that work in a dome-shaped work zone.

In the following video, Kawasaki Robotics provides a clear demonstration of how the Delta robot works in industry.

As demonstrated in the videos, the main applications for industrial robots are:

  • Pick-and-place (picking an item from one location and placing it in another). Tasks may include material handling, grasping, transporting and heavy-duty handling.
  • Machine loading, where the robot function is combined with another machine to perform loading tasks and tool changing.
  • Continuous path tasks that involve synchronized motion and precision, such as painting and welding.
  • Manufacturing that involves cutting, forming, or finishing products.
  • Assembly tasks that involve fastening components to a larger part. This type of robot is likely to be more intricate in its design and function, involving sensory feedback and control functions.

Socioeconomic Impact

Industrial robots have powered mainstream manufacturing businesses and have clearly encouraged productivity and capital formation since their introduction in the early 1960s. Although success with the application of industrial robots is likely to continue, there ought to be a consideration for the socioeconomic impact this revolutionary technology could have on society. How this automation affects unemployment, displacement, and job shifting needs to be considered.

However, unemployment or job shifting may be justified in industrial environments where there is exposure to hazardous chemicals and noxious gases and so the application of industrial robots then becomes beneficial as it eliminates workers from exposure to occupational chemical hazards. Further, with new technology including automation, new and different types of employment are created which can replace the occupations at risk from automation. Therefore, the provision of skills for displaced workers is a way to combat the loss of manufacturing jobs to industrial robots.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Nof, S.Y. (1999). Handbook of Industrial Robotics, Volume 1. USA, New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • ​Pires, J.N. (2007). Industrial Robots Programming: Building Applications for the Factories of the Future. USA, New York: Springer Science and Business Media.
  • Hunt, V.D. (1983). Industrial Robotics Handbook. USA, New York: Industrial Press Inc.
  • Huat, L.K. (2007). Industrial Robotics: Programming, Simulation and Applications. Croatia: Advanced Robotic Systems International.
  • Kozlowski, K. (2007). Robot Motion and Control 2007. UK, London: Springer.
  • Gurgul, M. & Bulanda, S. (2018). Industrial Robots and Cobots: Everything You Need to Know about Your Future Co-Worker. Poland: Michal Gurgul.

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