A history of industrial robots
Driven by advances in software, sensors and electronics, the market for industrial robots has greatly evolved over the past half century. In today’s industrial workspaces, the evolution continues with collaborative robots — or cobots — working side by side with humans.
In recent decades, as automation has emerged as the central competitive factor in manufacturing operations across the globe, the use of industrial robots has grown substantially. To provide perspective on this growth, consider the fact that in 1970 the total number of industrial robots in use in the US was 200. By 1980, that number had risen to 4000; by 2015, it was 1.6 million. This growth is expected to accelerate even further in the coming years, as another 1.4 million industrial robots are expected to enter service by 2019, according to a report from the International Federation of Robotics.
Industrial robotic beginnings
Industrial robots are often discussed in the context of 21st-century innovations. However, their roots date back much further to the 1950s, when George Devol developed the first industrial robot — a two-ton device that autonomously transferred objects from one place to another with hydraulic actuators. Since that time, as sensors, electronics and computer software have advanced, the capabilities of industrial robots have greatly expanded to include complex tasks such as welding, painting, assembly, packaging, palletising, inspecting and testing — all accomplished with speed, precision and repeatability.
Robots were first used commercially on assembly lines in the early 1960s. Most featured hydraulic or pneumatic arms and were primarily used for heavy lifting. Although the devices were primitive and sensorless, and featured limited programmability, they proved to be an invaluable tool for increasing production in manufacturing facilities and set the stage for what would be a prolonged period of robotics development.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the need for automation of manpower-intensive tasks in manufacturing increased, the focus of industrial robotics shifted away from heavy lifting to materials handling and precision work. This gave birth to the development of smaller electric robots with advanced controls, microprocessors, miniaturised motors, gyros and servos, which made them ideal for lighter assembly tasks, such as bolt and nut tightening.
By the late 1970s, the capabilities of robots expanded even further to include tasks such as material transferring, painting and arc welding. They also began taking over dangerous tasks in manufacturing facilities. In steel mills, for instance, robots were used to move parts and materials in high-temperature environments that were inhospitable for humans. This significantly improved facility safety and drove increased workforce productivity by freeing up skilled labourers to direct their focus to more important manufacturing operations.
Robotic technology in the 1980s: foundation for the future
The mid 1980s started to see increased interest and excitement in robotics. In seeing robots as the ‘machines of the future’, engineers began pushing the frontier forward to support industrial development and achieve greater manufacturing competitiveness. It was during this period that the foundation of the present-day industrial robot was laid, as they began incorporating advanced sensors and rudimentary machine vision systems.
The emergence of these technologies, coupled with a substantial reduction in costs of computer hardware like microprocessors, resulted in a step change of advancement in industrial robotic capabilities. Using precision force sensors and lasers, industrial robots were given the ability to detect and follow manufacturing components along assembly lines. These lasers and sensors provided the robots with a human-like sense of sight and touch and revolutionised their interactions with the industrial environment. As a result, robots were transformed from simple mechanical devices that were programmed to perform repetitive tasks to more elaborate machines that possessed what many categorised as ‘limited intelligence’.
Industrial robots of today and tomorrow
Since the early 2000s, developments in industrial robotics have largely been driven by advancements in software. Emerging fields, such as machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), are now pushing forward the frontier of what robots can do — giving them the ability to learn, improve and make decisions without direction or guidance from humans.
Most industrial robots in use today are equipped with a multitude of advanced sensors that gather immense amounts of data. When integrated with advanced analytics and ML software, the robots can interpret this data and use it to adapt, alter mechanical motions and better complete the task at hand. This quest to provide robots with ‘real intelligence’ is now the primary focus of robotics engineers.
In the coming years, as industrial robots become smarter, they will be able to take on more complex tasks and execute them with an efficiency that far exceeds human capabilities. They will also be able to safely work alongside humans in the manufacturing environment. This is something that is already occurring today with the emergence of collaborative robots, or cobots.
Cobots are a relatively new type of robot designed to safely operate in close proximity or even in direct contact with humans. They utilise advanced technology, including force-limited joints and computer vision to detect the presence of humans in their environment. Cobots are often much smaller and lighter than traditional industrial robots, easily moveable and trainable to perform specific tasks.
Together, humans and cobots offer a unique level of skill that neither can offer on their own, which results in manufacturing products far better and faster than would be if either were working without the other. Cobots generally serve one specific purpose when employed to perform a job. For example, a cobot may provide the force required to move an object, while a human provides guidance on where to place it. In recent years, the use of collaborative robots in industries like manufacturing, construction and health care has grown rapidly. By 2020, the cobot market is expected to reach $1 billion — with an estimated 40,000 machines in operation across the globe, according to ABI Research.
Industrial robots have come a long way from the hydraulic arms and bolt turners of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, these smart mechanical devices can work safely alongside humans to perform a wide array of complex tasks, such as painting, welding, complex product assembly and even surgery. In the coming years, as automation continues to drive competition among manufacturers across the globe, the robotics market will continue to expand, and the role robots play to help drive efficiency and throughput within industrial environments will grow in importance.
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