Where did robots first come on the scene? On the “Lost in Space” TV show where metal mechanical robots with whirling arms shouted “Danger Will Robinson”? Actually, the first robots appeared on the manufacturing floor of an automotive assembly plant.
According to Wikipedia, the world’s first working robot named Unimate joined the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Ewing Township in 1961. It was an automated die-casting mold that released blistering-hot door handles and other auto parts into vats of cooling liquid on a production line that moved them along to workers for final finishing and buffing.
Unimate Die-Casting Mold
Robots have revolutionized the industrial workplace ever since. Automation advances driven by the automotive industry were fueled by the development of the computer. According to ABB Robotics’ analysis of statistics from the International Federation of Robotics, most robots do very specific tasks and fall into ten categories.
Ten Popular Industrial Robot Applications
Arc Welding – Arc welding or robot welding, a relatively new application, became commonplace in the 1980s. One of the driving forces for switching to robot welding is improving the safety of workers from arc burn and inhaling hazardous fumes.
Spot Welding – Spot welding joins two contacting metal surfaces by directing a large current through the spot, which melts the metal and forms the weld delivered to the spot in a very short time (approximately ten milliseconds).
Materials Handling – Materials handling robots are utilized to move, pack and select products. They also can automate functions involved in the transferring of parts from one piece of equipment to another. Direct labor costs are reduced and much of the tedious and hazardous activities traditionally performed by human labor are eliminated.
Machine Tending – Robotic automation for machine tending is the process of loading and unloading raw materials into machinery for processing and overseeing the machine while it does a job.
Painting – Robotic painting is used in automotive production and many other industries as it increases quality and consistency of product. Cost savings are also realized through less rework.
Video Credit: ABB Robotics / International Federation of Robotics (IFR) Statistics
Picking, Packing and Palletizing – Most products are handled multiple times prior to final shipping. Robotic picking and packaging increases speed and accuracy along with lowering production costs.
Assembly – Robots routinely assemble products, eliminating tedious and tiresome tasks. Robots increase output and reduce operational costs.
Mechanical cutting, grinding, deburring and polishing – Building dexterity into robots provides a manufacturing option that is otherwise very difficult to automate. An example of this is the production of orthopaedic implants, such as knee and hip joints. Buffing and polishing a hip joint by hand can normally take 45-90 minutes while a robot can perform the same function in just a few minutes.
Gluing, adhesive sealing and spraying materials – Sealer robots are built with numerous arm configurations that enables the robot to adapt easily to reaching difficult areas of the operation. The primary benefit in this application is increased quality and consistency of final product.
Other processes (Inspection, waterjet cutting and soldering) – Waterjet cutting is a fast and flexible process where a stream of water is shot at an extremely high velocity and pressure in order to cut most plastics, foams and some metals.
Things are changing, however, and the new generation of robots is becoming user-friendly with no custom software required. These ten robot applications might quickly be replaced by universal multi-function assembly robots with 3D vision and touch technologies. These robots are far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy industrial manufacturers and could increasingly be integrated to perform alongside workers in both manufacturing and supply chain distribution.
What impact could robots have upon being closely integrated with manual labor jobs? Would this integration move humans up the value chain performing better and more meaningful jobs creating opportunities for better wages and employment? With the rise of new seeing and sensing type robots, will people no longer be required to perform monotonous and repetitive work? If these machines can do all or most of that kind of work, will it allow humans to be focused on higher order creative work in safe environments?