Robotics technology is mankind’s gift to innovation. In the last seven decades, robotics in manufacturing helped the industrial revolution to sustain and evolve into gigantic mechanised production units where robots work in sync with the human hand.
While the modern robotics chapter started in the 1950s, it’s origin is dated around 3000 BC. In 3000 BC, the Egyptians invented a system where water clocks were used with human figurines to strike the hour bells. During the second century BC of the Hellenic Egypt area, hydraulically-operated statues were built that could gesture, speak and make prophecies. In 400 BC, the inventor of the pulley and screw, Archytus Taremtum created a wooden pigeon that could fly. Isn’t this amazing?
Moving to the AD era, Petronius Arbiter created a mechanical doll that could move, in first century AD. In 1557, Giovanni Torriano created a wooden robot for the Emperor that could fetch bread from the store. A slew of robotic inventions happened in the 1700s and in the 19th century, we have Edison creating a talking doll and the Canadians creating steam-powered robots…and we thought robotics was a modern technology! You can read more about this mesmerising history here.
Understanding “Robots” Concept
What does “robots” mean? In the modern times, it denotes automation through a robotic arm that helps industries to automate certain tasks for improved productivity.
The term “robot” was coined in 1921 by Karl Capek, a Czech playwright in the play Rossum’s Universal Robots. In Czech, “robot” means a “slave”. Isaac Asimov used the word “robotics” for the first time in his short story Runabout (1942). While Capek had a pessimistic view of robotic development, Asimov was comparatively optimistic as he perceived them as “helpful servants of man” who were a “better (and) cleaner race”. He also proposed three laws to govern the robotic arms – (1) robot should not cause injury to a human being; (2) robot should follow all orders from human beings; (3) robot should actively protect its own existence, provided it doesn’t conflict with First/ Second Law.
There is no clear definition of “robot”. The Robot Institute of America (1979) explains it as a “reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, tools, or specialised devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of task”. The Webster Dictionary defines “robot” as an “automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human”.
The Modern Era of Robotic Arms
Certainly, the growth of robotic arms and its usage surpasses any invention that happened prior. The period can be divided into two phases: 1954 – 1979 and 1980 onwards.
In the first phase, the industrial robotic arms had limited intelligence and autonomy. They were restricted to perform limited tasks in a controlled environment. In 1954, George Devol designed the first industrial robot, and it was capable of transferring objects from one destination to another, within a circumference of few dozen feet. He coined the term “Universal Automation” and founded the first company for robot manufacturing, called Unimation, in 1956. The company manufactured UNIMATE which was installed by General Motors for their New Jersey plant in 1962.
In 1960, Harry Johnson and Veljko Milenkovic designed the Versatran, which was manufactured and marketed by AMF Corporation. In 1973, the German robotics company KUKA developed Famulus which had six electromechanically-driven axes. A year later, Prof. Victor Scheinman developed The Silver Arm with the capability to assemble small parts. The same technology was upgraded to its industrial version, which was controlled by a minicomputer. Prof. Scheinman developed PUMA robotic arm, and with support from Unimation and General Motors, it was used in assembly line production in 1978, and it is still used.
The world’s fully functional electric robot was built by the European company ASEA and named ASEA IRB. It used Intel’s first chipset. Between 1977 and 1979, Yaskawa America Inc. developed Motoman L10 which could move 10kg weight, Naci Robotics of Japan created the servo gun technology robot, and OTC Japan created arc welding robots.
In the second phase, various robotic arm developers and designers came into the market and robots were launched almost every month. The new general of robots had higher intelligence and operational freedom. In 1988, Yaskawa America Inc. introduced Motoman ERC control system which could handle the highest number of axes at a time. It was upgraded in 1994 to include 21 axes and dual robot synchronisation. Four years later, the Motoman ERC control was launched with 27 axes and multiple robot synchronisation capabilities. The same year, the Motoman UP series was launched which was a simple robotic arm created for repair and maintenance.
The prototype of an intelligent robot was introduced in 1992 by FANUC Robotics Corporation. In the post-2000 times, OTC DAIHEN introduced the Almega AX series which is a family of arc welding and handling robotic arms.
The new generation of robots is far versatile and “intelligent” with the possibility to independently work without human intervention, in the future.