Sunday, 27 March 2011

History of industrial robotics

George Devol applied for the first robotics patents in 1954 (granted in 1961). The first company to produce a robot was Unimation, founded by Devol and Joseph F. Engelberger in 1956, and was based on Devol's original patents. Unimation robots were also called programmable transfer machines since their main use at first was to transfer objects from one point to another, less than a dozen feet or so apart. They used hydraulic actuators and were programmed in joint coordinates, i.e. the angles of the various joints were stored during a teaching phase and replayed in operation. They were accurate to within 1/10,000 of an inch (note: although accuracy is not an appropriate measure for robots, usually evaluated in terms of repeatability - see later). Unimation later licensed their technology to Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Guest-Nettlefolds, manufacturing Unimates in Japan and England respectively. For some time Unimation's only competitor was Cincinnati Milacron Inc. of Ohio. This changed radically in the late 1970s when several big Japanese conglomerates began producing similar industrial robots.

In 1969 Victor Scheinman at Stanford University invented the Stanford arm, an all-electric, 6-axis articulated robot designed to permit an arm solution. This allowed it accurately to follow arbitrary paths in space and widened the potential use of the robot to more sophisticated applications such as assembly and welding. Scheinman then designed a second arm for the MIT AI Lab, called the "MIT arm." Scheinman, after receiving a fellowship from Unimation to develop his designs, sold those designs to Unimation who further developed them with support from General Motors and later marketed it as the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA).

Industrial robotics took off quite quickly in Europe, with both ABB Robotics and KUKA Robotics bringing robots to the market in 1973. ABB Robotics (formerly ASEA) introduced IRB 6, among the world's first commercially available all electric micro-processor controlled robot. The first two IRB 6 robots were sold to Magnusson in Sweden for grinding and polishing pipe bends and were installed in production in January 1974. Also in 1973 KUKA Robotics built its first robot, known as FAMULUS[2], also one of the first articulated robot to have six electromechanically driven axes.

Interest in robotics increased in the late 1970s and many US companies entered the field, including large firms like General Electric, and General Motors (which formed joint venture FANUC Robotics with FANUC LTD of Japan). U.S. startup companies included Automatix and Adept Technology, Inc. At the height of the robot boom in 1984, Unimation was acquired by Westinghouse Electric Corporation for 107 million U.S. dollars. Westinghouse sold Unimation to Stäubli Faverges SCA of France in 1988, which is still making articulated robots for general industrial and cleanroom applications and even bought the robotic division of Bosch in late 2004.

Only a few non-Japanese companies ultimately managed to survive in this market, the major ones being Adept Technology, Stäubli-Unimation, the Swedish-Swiss company ABB Asea Brown Boveri and the German company KUKA Robotics.

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