Industrial robotics - 57 years! Recall where the countdown comes from

Published on June 08, 2018

Industrial robotics - 57 years! Recall where the countdown comes from

    Soon, humanity will celebrate not a round, but an important date: on June 13, 1961, a patent was issued for the first-ever industrial robot. Let us recall how the invention was made, which marked the beginning of the era of industrial robotics.

    The robot, which will be discussed - Unimate, manufactured by Unimation since 1961. The first copy appeared at the plant Inland Fisher Guide Plant, owned by General Motors; He became a symbol of the technical revolution of his time, got on the exhibition and even on a television show. The brainchild of two brilliant engineers, George Devol (patent holder) and Joseph Engelberger (his coauthor and business partner), was well ahead of his time.


    1961 The first copy of Unimate passes the final tests before being shipped to the General Motors factory. Joseph Engelberger (left) with Unimation engineers

    George Devol - “Tesla of our days”




    American inventor George Devol was an amazingly versatile and prolific engineer. For these qualities, contemporaries compared him with Edison and Tesla. He took part in the invention of the microwave oven, created automatic doors and a new sound system for cinemas. During the Second World War, he worked on radar instruments; in the postwar period, he participated in the improvement of sound recording systems and the creation of new packaging machines. But his most famous work is an industrial robot, which Devol not only invented, but also launched into mass production.

    The engineer began working on Unimate back in 1950. He created the mechanism, which he called the "Programmable device of movement", and in 1954 filed a patent application. But Devol was not sure how the invention would be used. The turning point was a meeting with Joseph Engelberger, a talented engineer who worked on automated systems for aviation and read books by Isaac Asimov. The two inventors met at a cocktail party in Connecticut in 1957, they got to talking and decided to work together on a project. Engelberger helped George Devol improve the invention and determine its exact purpose - a robotic manipulator, a man’s assistant in production.

    Joseph Engelberger, robots popularizer




    Engelberger was educated at Columbia University, having completed a bachelor's degree in physics and a magistracy in electrical engineering. Several years after graduation, he worked at Manning Maxwell & Moore, a company that manufactures aviation instruments, and eventually became the chief engineer for aviation. In 1957, he founded his own instrument-making production, the company Consolidated Controls.

    In the period of his acquaintance with Devol, Engelberger already had experience in business. Therefore, together they have successfully implemented a plan to create their robot company, which they called Unimation (short for Universal Automation). And the first robot was named Unimate. It was a loud innovation, around which, however, scandals flared up: the workers were afraid that they would lose their jobs, because the robots could work 24 hours a day and did not demand a salary or social package. Therefore Engelberger did a great job of promoting his children. Together with Unimate, he appeared at the trade show at the Cow Palace (Chicago), and a little later - on the Tonight Show, where the robot played golf, opened a beer and even conducted an orchestra. Over the entire period of Unimation, it was Engelberger who was engaged in business processes and the promotion of new industrial robots - both among customers and partners, and for a wide audience. This brought him fame and the unofficial title of the “father of robotics”, although the patent for the world's first industrial robot does not have his name.


    Devol and Engelberger, 1956

    After in the 70s the paths of two engineers again diverged, Engelberger went into the sphere of service robotics. And he continued his work to popularize this area: he published the books Practical Robotics and Services Robotics, published many articles, interviews and other materials for the press. Engelberger also established the Industrial Robotics Association (RIA) and the annual award for achievements in this industry.

    Unimate - development and implementation


    Joanna Wallen, in his book The History of Industrial Robots, tells us that Engelberger had long been choosing a job for Unimate. He visited about 35 industrial enterprises of different profiles (including 15 automobile ones), trying to understand which sphere of production really needs automation. As a result, the first contract was signed with the company General Motors, and the robot took its place at the injection molding machine.


    Unimate worked on the assembly line, taking parts from the continuous casting line and installing them inside car bodies through welding. This stage refers to hazardous production: negligence can result in loss of limbs and poisoning by toxic gases for the worker.

    Robots from Unimation were created to perform multiple repetitive operations. This is a robotic “hand” with a double-toed grip, similar to ticks, and with several joints acting as joints. As George Munson, one of the company's engineers, said later in his book, the robot originally had to accurately copy the human hand and have six degrees of freedom. But financial constraints and engineering difficulties forced to leave five degrees: the “wrist” of the robot could move only along two axes instead of three. And this, of course, was not the last of the difficulties. The robotic arm turned out to be a project that was ahead of the technology of its time. Here is how Munson describes the engineering tasks that the team faced: everything that was described in these points was to be worked out by them.
    1. A digital control system based on a binary code (don't forget, it was 1956!).
    2. Non-volatile solid-state memory system, which did not yet exist.
    3. Optical digital encoders that read the position of the shaft with high speed, which also have not yet been.
    4. High-performance digital servo controller capable of dynamic control, with a wide range of payloads.
    5. Highly efficient hydraulic servo valves.
    6. Autonomous electric and hydraulic power supplies.
    Under the leadership of Devol, the team developed a ferroresonant sensor and a memory system based on it, which was patented as Dynastat, as well as the Spirodisk optical encoder.

    All these developments formed the basis of Unimate. A program carrier in the form of a cam drum with a stepper motor, designed for 200 control commands, was used as a control system. To program the robot, the operator in the training mode asked him the order of control points: the links of the manipulator had to pass them during the work cycle. The points were kept in memory, and the robot could reproduce the action an unlimited number of times.

    This allowed engineers to achieve high-precision reproduction of actions - up to 1.25 mm. When unloading the casting machine, Unimate gave out only 2% of the defect, whereas in the case of human workers, its amount reached 20% with lower productivity.

    The hydraulic system deserved special attention. The first prototypes, including the robot, presented at the exhibition in Chicago, it "flowed like a sieve." But the developers managed to solve this problem.

    In 1961, Devol received a patent for a device based on a previous application filed back in 1954. The document he received with the number US2988237A marked the beginning of a new era in the history of mankind - the era of robots.

    Progress has been rapid: in a short time, Unimation sold 450 devices to the United States. And in 1966, their robots for the first time went outside the United States - to the Nokia plant in Finland. Three years later, the company entered the Asian market, the licenses for the production of Unimate were granted by Kawasaki Heavy Industries and GKN. The device was in demand until the 1970s, when it was replaced by new robots of the Japanese design.


    Unimate robots on spot welding lines. GM Factory in Ohio, 1969

    Today, a copy of Unimate can be found in the Robot Hall of Fame (Pittsburgh, USA), and Popular Mechanics magazine in December 2005 included it among the top 50 inventions of the last 50 years.

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