12 Early Robots That Launched 40 Years of Automation Explosion

Over the three and a half decades, from 1954 through the 1980s, robotics proved its worth in automotive manufacturing. Here’s a look at the development of manufacturing robotics in their early decades.
  • robots, robotics, automotive

    Here’s a look at the robots that showed up in manufacturing in the mid-1950s and continued expand their presence through the 1980s. 

    Materials handling was the main task for robots in the 1970s, followed by arc welding, which required better motors and control systems to manage path control. By the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, new tasks were mainly concentrated on assembly. At that point, robots with higher repeatability, acceleration, and velocity were needed to shorten the cycle times.

    The automotive industry was, and still is, an important customer for robotics. The metal industry is also important with its heavy, hot, and inhospitable working environment. Through the 1980s, relatively simple tasks like machine tending, material transfer, and painting became economically viable for robotics.

    Flip through the following pages for 12 influencial robots that helped bring about today's innovations.

  • robotics, robots, automotive

    George Charles Devol – often called the father of robotics – is generally credited for inventing the first industrial robot – the Unimate – in 1954. A few years later, Devol and entrepreneur Joseph F. Engelberger launched Unimation. 

    The first prototype of the Unimate robot was produced in 1961 and installed in GM's factory for die casting handling and spot welding.  It cost $65,000 to produce, yet it was sold for $18,000.

    GM installed 66 more Unimates, which prompted an interest from Ford, as well. 

    Image courtesy of The Computer History Museum

  • robots, robotics, automotive

    The Rancho Arm was developed at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, Calif. The arm was designed to be used as a tool for the handicapped. The Rancho Arm's six joints gave it the flexibility of the human arm.

    While the Rancho Arm was not developed specifically for industry, its advances were soon incorporated into industrial robotic arms.

    The Rancho Arm was acquired by Stanford University in 1963, where it became one of the first artificial arms to be controlled by a computer.

    Image courtesy of The Computer History Museum

  • robots, robotics, automotive

    The Rancho Arm was followed by the Tentacle Arm, designed by Marvin Minsky from MIT in 1968. Minsky built the robotic arm for the office of Naval Research, for possible underwater exploration.

    The robot has twelve single-degree-of-freedom joints that were used to actuate this electro-hydraulic high-dexterity arm. The arm was controlled by a PDP-6 computer or via a joystick.

    The arm was strong enough to lift a person, yet gentle enough to embrace a child.

    Image courtesy of The Computer History Museum

  • robots, robotics, automotive

    In 1969, while at Stanford University, Victor Scheinman invented the Stanford arm, an all-electric, 6-axis articulated robot designed to permit an arm solution in closed form.

    The configuration allowed the robot to accurately follow arbitrary paths in space under computer control, which widened the potential use of the robot to sophisticated applications in assembly and arc welding. I

    n 1973, Scheinman started Vicarm Inc. to manufacture the robot arms. In 1977, Scheinman sold his design to Unimation. Scheinman served briefly in leadership at Unimation before co-founding Automatix in 1980. 

    Image courtesy of Stanford University

  • robots, robotics, automotive

    By 1974, the Stanford Arm could assemble a Ford Model T water pump, guiding itself with optical and contact sensors. The Stanford Arm led directly to commercial production.

    The Stanford Arm was steerable by Stanford-lab computers in six full degrees of freedom. DC electric motors with Harmonic Drive® gear reducers generated its motion.

    By the early 1980s, rougher gripper designs inspired by the Stanford Arm (now run with increasingly powerful microchips) were in mass production, and used in heavy industry.

    Image courtesy of Stanford University

  • robotics, robots, automotive

    The Stanford Arm was followed by the Silver Arm in 1974. The Silver Arm was created by MIT's David Silver to perform precise assembly using touch and pressure sensors and a microcomputer.

    This robotic arm was deployed for small-parts assembly using feedback from delicate touch and pressure sensors. The arm´s fine movements approximate those of human fingers.

    Image courtesy of Stanford University

  • robots, robotics, automotive

    In 1974, Victor Scheinman was instrumental in the creation of the PUMA (programmable universal manipulator for assembly) for Unimation. Scheinman initially developed the robot for General Motors based on his earlier designs while at Stanford.

    Unimation produced PUMAs for years until the company was purchased by Westinghouse in 1980. Westinghouse sold rights to the PUMA to Stäubli  in 1988. 

    Nokia Robotics manufactured about 1500 PUMA robots during the 1980s, with the Puma-650 being the most popular model.

    Image courtesy of The Computer History Museum

  • robots, robotics, automotive

    By the middle of the 1970s, industrial robot sales were booming and hitting rates around 30% per year. In the 1980's, automotive companies plowed billions of investment dollars into robotic companies. But that enthusiasm and funding were not always matched with a sound understanding of the robot capabilities.

    General Motors spent more than $40 billion on new technology in the 1980's, but lacked an understanding of the equipment. This led to costly manufacturing accidents.

    In 1988, robots at the Hamtramck Michigan plant malfunctioned, smashing windows and painting one another. 

    Image courtesy of Deutches Museum

  • robots, robotics, SCARA, automotive

    In 1981, the companies Sankyo Seiki, Pentel, and NEC introduced a completely new concept for assembly robots. The robot was developed under the guidance of Hiroshi Makino, a professor at the University of Yamanashi.

    The robot was called Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm, or SCARA. Its arm was rigid in the Z-axis and pliable in the XY-axes, which allowed it to adapt to holes in the XY-axes.

    By virtue of the SCARA's parallel-axis joint layout, the arm is slightly compliant in the X-Y direction but rigid in the 'Z' direction, hence the term: Selective Compliant.

    The configuration made it excellent for assembly operations such as inserting a round pin in a round hole without binding.

    Image courtesy of ABB

  • robots, robotics, automotive

    In the early 1980s, GM chairman Roger B. Smith described his vision for the auto industry's future. He pictured factory floors where, one by one, workers were replaced by robots.

    He noted that every time the cost of labor goes up a dollar an hour, a thousand more robots become economical. It didn’t happen quite that way.

    By the late 1980's, a steep decline in orders for robotic equipment drove most American producers out of the business of making industrial robots. A few small American robot makers held their course, as did the big Japanese robotics makers. Sales returned to growth in the 1990s.

    Image courtesy of the Robotic Industries Association

  • automotive, robots, robotics

    Takeo Kanade created the first direct-drive arm in 1981. The arm's motors were contained within the robot itself, eliminating long transmissions. Direct-drive robotic arms are now viewed as the best method of design for mechanical arms due to the removal of transmission mechanisms between the motors and loads.

    While the earlier reducers and chain belts produced uneven movements, the direct-drive arm can move freely and smoothly, allowing for high speed precision robots.

    Design of the arm was completed in 1981, and successful patent was obtained a few years later.

    Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum

  • robots, robotics, automotive, Toyota

    It wasn't until recently that the robotics industry regained its mid-1980 revenue levels. The American robotics market disappeared -- save for a handful os small producers. Japanese and European bought up the early American robot companies.

    A major acceleration of robot demand showed up in 2010 due to the continued innovative development and improvement of industrial robots. 2014 robot sales experienced a 29% annual increase across the globe. 

    Image courtesy of Toyota Motor Company


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Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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