Industrial Robots: Then and Now


Industrial Robots: Then and Now

Robots have long been a topic of science fiction but today they can be seen in use in increasing numbers across many factories and manufacturing facilities – in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a car factory which doesn’t use robotics within its production process. Robots are everyday sights in modern industry, but this wasn’t always the case.

The first industrial robot that fits the ISO definition of the term was created by Griffith “Bill” P. Taylor in 1937 and was made almost exclusively of Meccano (the children’s building toy). This initial foray into robotics was crane-like in design and was powered by a single electric motor. It utilised 5-axis movement and was automated through the use of punched paper tape. This first industrial robot was capable of stacking wooden blocks in patterns pre-programmed into the paper tape.


The next breakthrough in industrial robotics came from George Devol, who placed the first industrial robot patent in 1954. Devol’s robot could transfer objects from point to point up to a limit of 12 feet. His company, Unimation was founded in 1956 and manufactured their first robot, Unimate in 1962, becoming the first industrial robot to be utilised by a major manufacturer – General Motors.


1969 saw the development of the Stanford Arm at Stanford University which introduced all-electric, 6-axis capabilities. This technology allowed manufacturers to utilise robotics in assembly and welding, and the designs were later sold to Unimation.


It wasn’t until 1978 that we saw robotic arms in a recognizable form. The PUMA robot arm was released by Vicar and Unimation for use on assembly lines, and it wasn’t long until Japanese firm OTC released the first arc welding robots in 1979.


Since the 1980s, the field of robotics has exploded. The first robotic arms with joint-installed motors emerged in 1981, which greatly increased the speed, accuracy and compactness of the robots. In 1988, the Motorman ERC control system was debuted, which featured the power to control up to 12 axes. This was extended to 21 and 27 axes in 1994 and 1998, respectively. It was around this time that Motorman also introduced the first robot control system providing synchronized control of two robots.

By the 2000s, robots were being specifically engineered to work alongside people, without fear of injury. This vision came to pass in 2008 when Danish plastics company Linatex enlisted the help of Universal Robots in designing and creating a collaborative robot or ‘cobot’.

Industrial robots have already taken over the automotive sector and are set to continue their domination in other manufacturing sectors, so much so that shipments of industrial robots have almost doubled since 2012, growing from 159,000 to 294,000 in the four years in between 2012 and 2016.

With continuous investment into automation technology, automated robotic cells are becoming an affordable addition to any assembly line. Robot cells can be adapted for any industry; recent examples from ABP include cleanroom robotic applications for the electronic and medical device industries to high capacity robots in an automotive press shop. Robot cells have immense potential and offer a cost-effective solution to incorporating and harnassing the latest technology into your assembly line.

The future of robotics is looking bright, with the advent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and other smart tools allowing robots to take on greater flexibility in application, as well as burgeoning artificial intelligence allowing robots to learn processes without programming.

ABP is one of the UK’s leading automation providers and has decades of experience in the design and manufacture of automated production, inspection and assembly systems for a wide range of clients. ABP has provided automation systems in a range of scales, from individual workstations designed for efficient cellular manufacturing to large-scale factory applications.

ABP uses a collaborative / consultative approach which starts with gaining a full, in-depth understanding of a client’s automation needs and gaining an insight into the processes they use and results in the design and manufacture of a unique, innovative and bespoke automation systems.

If you would like to find out more about our automation services, click here or call on 01202 665 000.