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The History of Industrial Robots, From Single Taskmaster to Self-Teacher

Industrial robots have been making manufacturing safer and faster for more than 80 years. It all started in the late 1930s, when Bill Taylor created the first “pick-and-place” robot. Since then, the history of industrial robots has evolved dramatically—even going to Mars and back. Watch the video to learn more about the inception of this exciting technology, its development up to today, and what the future may bring.

[Video Transcript]

Narrator: What technology has been revolutionizing manufacturing for more than 80 years? [Industrial robots] It all started earlier than you think.

In the late 1930s, Bill Taylor used components from a Meccano toy system to build the first pick-and-place industrial robot, known as Gargantua. The cranelike robot was programmed by paper tape and powered by a single electric motor, and it could stack blocks in preprogrammed patterns. Taylor’s design was the beginning of one of history’s most exciting industries, revolutionizing productivity in the United States manufacturing sector.

But it wasn’t until after World War II that the first full-size industrial robots were produced and put to work, where they were utilized for heavy and repetitive tasks, which consisted of relatively simple motions. In 1961, a company called Unimation was established in Connecticut. Its founder—Joseph Engelberger, known as the father of robotics—led the development of the Unimate 1900-series industrial robot. It didn’t take long for the automotive industry to take note. 

General Motors incorporated the Unimate 1900 into its manufacturing line, where it was used to perform dangerous tasks, like placing hot metals into cooling liquids, and thereby transforming the automotive industry by making tasks safer for workers. It wasn’t long before the Unimate 1900 was introduced to the public at a trade show in Chicago, and it even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Soon, 450 Unimate 1900 units were in use, and by 1966, manufacturers wanted to broaden the customer base outside of the US, with Nokia of Finland stepping in to manufacture the robots in Scandinavia and eastern Europe. In 1969, Unimate welding robots were brought to market. They could assemble and weld an amazing 110 cars per hour, more than double the rate of any automotive plant at the time. 

The next big development came when Victor Scheinman at Stanford University designed the first lightweight, all electric multiprogrammable robotic arm, called the Stanford Arm. It was able to perform jobs that were unpleasant and dangerous for workers. In 1971, the creation of the first fully electrical, microprocessor-controlled robot was underway. It had an anthropomorphic structure. By 1973, 3,000 industrial robots were in use around the world, improving the way workplaces operate every day.

The design then reached new heights when the simple robot arms were used on the Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers. They were able to easily scoop surface material and transfer it to receptacles on each lander for tests and analysis. The next decade saw manufacturers give robots the sense of sight and use them on automated assembly lines in conjunction with sensors, which used machine vision in the positioning, orienting, and inspecting of the component parts.

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, advancements in robotics were evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In 1994, for example, the MRC robot control system was introduced. Editable from an ordinary desktop PC, the MRC made it possible to control up to 21 axes and synchronize the motion of two robots.

Over the next 10 years, robots evolved to be able to physically interact with people in a shared workspace. Known as cobots, these robots could operate with limited guidance and lighten a company’s workload. By 2012, Amazon purchased the robotics company Kiva Systems, using autonomous mobile robots to automate the material handling in its warehouses. Continued innovation saw a surge in demand, and by 2014, robot sales saw a 29 percent increase worldwide, and as AI is used more and more to control robots, the demand continues to grow.

Current research into combining machine learning with robotics is exploring how industrial robots can train themselves to perform complex tasks and adapt to their surroundings. The robot’s ability to solve problems independently has the potential to change manufacturing industries as we know them. Today, the automobile industry remains the heaviest user of industrial robots, with electronics manufacturing in second place and chemicals and plastic production in third. The Unimate robot remains one of the most significant contributions to manufacturing in the past 100 years. The question now is, which industry will robotics innovate next? Only time will tell.

About the Author

Redshift Video is the brainchild of recovering television producer Shveta Berry. She is thrilled to be able to bring the inspiring and meaningful work of Autodesk customers to life.

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