Industry Insights

The History of Robotic Arms


Published 31 Mar 2022

The use of the term “robot” was avoided in the early days of the invention of the robotic arm. It was simply because there was an unreal, almost movie-like connotation surrounding it. The inventors feared that such a connotation would hinder the adoption. However, as technology advanced and people were more accepting of automation, the use of the term “robot” eased its way into the industry. In this blog post, we will discuss the history of robotic arms and dissect the different improvements made since their first appearance. 

The History of Robotic Arms

The Beginning

In 1961, Unimate introduced the very first industrial robotic arm. Joseph Engelberger and George Devol are to thank for this. Devol developed the patent that was granted in 1961. Engelberger functioned as the entrepreneurial half of the duo who founded Unimation. Thus, while Devol was the one who conceived the idea for the arm, Engelberger was thought to be the “father of the robot”.

Characteristics of the First Robotic Arm

This revolutionary invention featured a 3-axis arm that could handle parts up to 226 kg (500 pounds). Equipped with hydraulic actuators, the Unimate was able to hold force constant due to the incompressibility of fluids (Inst Tools, 2019). The robot promised the ability to execute multiple tasks from material handling to welding. However, the invention proved to be a double-edged sword. While it alleviated the work hazards for humans, it created another problem of mass unemployment if adopted. Thus, companies hesitated to move forward with the technology.

Figure 1: First Unimate Robotic Arm (1961) Image by IEEE

Early Adoption of Robotic Arms

Despite the fear of displacing workers, companies recognised the importance of keeping up to speed with automation. The industrial robotic arm became the perfect solution for companies in growing industries. Ultimately, companies are profit-driven and the fear of mass displacement waned over time. Many of the early adopters came from the west and Japan. The very first industrial robotic arm was installed in the General Motors factory in Trenton, USA (Gasparetto et al., 2019)

Figure 2: Unimate in General Motors Factory from Journal

Further Developments

However, robotics arms as we know it did not stop at just 3-axis. Robots underwent constant refinement and improvements to stay relevant.

The History of Robotic Arm Innovation: Wave 2

This wave lasted approximately 9 years from 1968 to 1977. It was characterised by having servo-controllers enabling point-to-point motion. The robot was also programmable with a teach box. However, each robot had a specific software and could only perform a specific task. Therefore, reducing the versatility of these robots.

A prominent alteration was the change from hydraulic to electronic actuators. Electronic actuators allow greater control over position and velocity. Additionally, simultaneous adjustments can be made with accuracy and repeatability exceeding that of hydraulic actuators (Tolomatic, 2017).  Scheinman pioneered the electronically powered robotic arm. He was a mechanical engineer at Stanford who built the Stanford arm. The arm boasted 6-axes and sensors to ascertain the position and velocity of the joints. Furthermore, what was groundbreaking was the fact that the arm was easy to control and compatible with computer systems in that era (InfoLab Stanford, n.d.)

Figure 3: Stanford Arm Image by Stanford InfoLab

The History of Robotic Arm Innovation: Wave 3

From 1978 to 1999, the “third-generation” industrial robots were commonly classified by their ability to perform complex tasks. Many additional features were included to enhance the overall functionality of the robot.

Firstly, robot movements could account for environmental changes. This was especially crucial in a factory setting where the arms might require relocation. Secondly, robot arms were now able to run diagnostics and provide indications of where and what type of failure has occurred. The ability to run diagnostics significantly reduces the time needed to locate errors. Lastly, robot arms were now able to perform complex tasks. For instance, data used from vision or perception systems (from the sensors or cameras) allowed the robot to perform tactile inspection and assembly operations.

Robotics Today

Presently, robotic arms have up to 7-axis and companies are spearheading change through the simplifying of programming processes. Such innovations address the pain points of many manufacturing companies and carve a way for people with no programming background to adopt such technology. Additionally, the mistakes in the work cell can be predicted beforehand and avoided with the introduction of offline programming. Accordingly, the reduction in programming downtime increases the overall efficiency of companies.

Increase in Efficiency with Cobots

Collaborative robots (Cobots) have become increasingly popular as they can be safely used alongside human workers without the need for caging or safety equipment. Companies pioneering the production of cobots include Universal Robots and Rethink Robotics. With the demand for cobots expanding, manufacturers can reap economies of scale and lower the costs to access such cobots. Therefore, the barrier to entry for using robotic arms or cobots in manufacturing processes is the ease of use rather than cost.

Figure 4: No Code Programming Technology by Augmentus

According to CNBC, we are currently in the golden era of robotics adoption (Gurdus et al., 2019). Rising labour costs coupled with the need to meet rising demands have propelled the adoption of robotic arms. However, the same concerns remain. Will this rapid adoption displace human employees? Read more on this in our previous blog post.

About Augmentus 

Augmentus pioneers industry-leading robotic technologies that enable easy and rapid robotic automation, enabling anyone, even those with no robotic experience, to program dynamic industrial robots in minutes. Our proprietary technology incorporates algorithms to enable fully automated robot path generation and an intuitive graphical interface that eliminates the need for coding and CAD files in robot teaching. Companies using Augmentus have experienced up to 70% cost reduction and 17 times faster deployments across a wide variety of applications, such as spraying, palletizing, welding, and inspections. Augmentus ushers in a new era of human-machine interface, democratizing robotic automation.

References

Gasparetto, A., & Scalera, L. (2019). A Brief History of Industrial Robotics in the 20th Century. Advances in Historical Studies, 08(01), 24–35. https://doi.org/10.4236/ahs.2019.81002

Gurdus, L. (2021, December 14). “Golden era of robotics adoption” kicks off in 2022, strategist says. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/12/14/golden-era-of-robotics-adoption-kicks-off-in-2022-strategist-says.html

InfoLab Stanford. (n.d.). Robot. http://infolab.stanford.edu/pub/voy/museum/pictures/display/1-Robot.htm

Inst Tools. (2019, March 21). What is a Hydraulic Actuator? https://instrumentationtools.com/what-is-a-hydraulic-actuator/

Tolomatic. (2017, June 20). High force linear actuators – hydraulic vs electric [WEBINAR]. https://www.tolomatic.com/de-de/blog/artmid/843/articleid/337/high-force-linear-actuators-%E2%80%93-hydraulic-vs-electric-webinar#:%7E:text=An%20electric%20linear%20actuator%20with,those%20of%20a%20hydraulic%20system.

Other Articles


View all articles