Industrial robots have come a long way since their inception in the 1960s, but there is still much room for improvement.
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The name ‘Unimate’ might not mean much to you, but the impact of this machine on society, and particularly on manufacturing, is impossible to overestimate. In 1962, Unimate¹ became the first industrial robot in the world.
The machine was the brainchild of American engineer George Charles Devol, Jr and Joseph Frederick Engelberger— often called ‘the father of robotics’ — and was developed by a venture company formed by the two called Unimation Inc.
Unimate quickly caught the attention of car manufacturers in the United States, who had also been working on a way to automate production lines. The robot was soon deployed in the die-casting factory of General Motors.
By 1968 manufacturing robots had spread to Japan with Unimation Inc teaming with a new technical partner, Kawasaki Aircraft. This led to not only the origin of industrial robots in the country but also the creation of Kawasaki Robotics which created its first industrial robot in 1969 and still builds and programs robots to this day.
In the sixty years since the deployment of Unimate, industrial robots defined as have come a long way. Not just in how widespread their application, but also in terms of sophistication.
The State of Industrial Robots Today
In a 2013 paper² published in the International Journal of Emerging Technology and Advanced Engineering, the authors describe an industrial robot as “an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose, manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.”
Today, these robots offer the manufacturing industry greater speed and accuracy that human labor cannot match. Modern robots feature increased payload capacity, accuracy, reach, and range of motion. Additionally, speed and acceleration have been boosted meaning tasks can not just be performed more accurately, but more rapidly as well.
One of the key areas of improvement for industrial robots has been the way they communicate with other machines and their operators.
As efficiency has increased, the cost-effectiveness of robots has burgeoned. These machines are now created in such a way that updating them doesn’t require a completely new machine — just replacement of parts. This has cut down on the cost of manufacturing robots as well as reducing the number of raw materials needed and the volume of scrap produced.
In manufacturing, robots can be divided into three board subcategories — machines that handle and transport pieces between other machines, additive machines involved with processes like assembly, welding, gluing, and painting, and those involved in subtractive processes like cutting, grinding, and milling.
Because manufacturing robots have been primarily used in car manufacturing, material handling and welding have been the areas of the most intense development, with this estimated to account for about 80 percent of robot applications in 2003.
Robotic manufacturing and the introduction of robots that perform multiple tasks have led to the traditional ‘production line’ process being replaced in many instances by a production cell approach, which sees one robot responsible for a range of tasks during manufacture.
Manufacturing Robots in the Future
Probably one of the only areas humans still have the advantage over robots is in the way they sense the environment around them. As a result, one of the key areas that researchers involved with the development of manufacturing robots are looking to improve is the senses of touch and sight possessed by these machines.
Many teams are currently involved in developing tactile feedback for robots that will help them handle potentially delicate or fragile instruments and parts more gently. This feedback could also help robots identify different shapes, sizes, and textures.
Improving this area of robotics means employing extra cameras or even more sophisticated cameras — something made feasible by how cost-effective this technology is becoming. These cameras will allow a computer algorithm to identify how contact causes the deformation of a material. Some of these systems³ can detect a deformation as small as a micrometer.
The sensitivity with which a robot interacts with its environment can also be boosted by increasing the number of tactile sensors fitted to it. These would be placed in strategic areas across arm joints given the machine indications of not just its range of movement through an area and its available range of movement with regards to its parts.
Ultimately, the most efficient robot may be one equipped with an overall sensory skin — an artificial version of our own skin.
In a 2018 paper published in the IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, authors suggest that the future of manufacturing robots will involve linking with artificial intelligence (AI) and users across an industrial internet comprised of “global industrial systems with advanced computing, analysis, sensing technology, and Internet connectivity.”
The team suggests that the main driver of industrial robotics technology for the future is the move toward intelligence. This involves solving realistic problems with mathematical modeling, improving robots in the performance of sensitive and complex tasks, and a better interface between humans and robots.
References and Further Reading
Unimate, A Tribute to Joseph Engelberger, [https://www.automate.org/a3-content/joseph-engelberger-unimate]
Singh. B., et al. (2013) International Journal of Emerging Technology and Advanced Engineering, [https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.413.8024&rep=rep1&type=pdf]
Woo. M., (2022) ‘Teaching robots to touch,’ Nature, [https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-01401-y]
Rusishu. Z., et al, (2018) IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, The status and development of industrial robots, [https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1757-899X/423/1/012051/pdf]