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The history of robotics in layman’s terms

How huge machines developed into agile robots that even SMEs can use for all kinds of purposes. 

The desire to create systems that can make someone’s work easier or even act just like a human dates back to antiquity. The ancient Greeks regarded mechanical devices as a way of replacing manual labour. They also believed that Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, used mechanical assistants. Leonardo da Vinci, too, developed a mechanical automaton. His drawings of armour with complicated pulley systems inside have survived to this day. He wanted it to look like a ghost was controlling the armour. Next came numerous seemingly humanoid mechanical devices, such as the Mechanical Turk. Over the centuries, the power of water – and later steam and oil – was harnessed to operate industrial machinery. That still had little to do with robotics, though. Although such systems could mill grain, swing a forge hammer or weave fabrics, the way they worked was inflexible, because adapting production meant a completely new mechanical control system. A robot, on the other hand, benefits from programmable operation. It can carry out multiple tasks rather than just a single job. So how did the story of robotics begin?

An overview of robot applications

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History of robotics driven by the automotive industry

The term “robotics” was first coined by the Czech author Karel Čapek in the 20th century. It originates from the Czech word “robota”, which translates as “drudgery”. However, it was Isaac Asimov’s highly successful science fiction stories that first made the term really popular. As industrialisation progressed, it was only a matter of time before the first truly programmable robot was invented. The Unimate robot was unveiled in 1954. Working with George Devol, Joseph Engelberger developed a mechanical pivot arm that, when fitted with a gripper, could manipulate objects. It was operated using numerical control, which meant proper programming was possible. Consequently, the same robot could be used in all kinds of situations. Unimate robots were especially popular in automobile manufacturing. With the appropriate equipment, the robots developed by Engelberger and Devol could weld, apply paintwork and even stack metal parts. The humanoid form that springs to mind when hearing the word “robot” was still a long way off, though.

This first rudimentary type of robot revealed the huge demand for automated production in industry. Robots quickly took over at companies, especially in Japan, which attracted the attention of Mercedes-Benz in Germany. When contacted about this development, however, the German distribution partner of Unimation – the company founded by Engelberger and Devol – soon realised the existing robots weren’t suitable for the intended use, so it set about creating a robot of its own. This distribution partner – KUKA – has now become a big name. In 1973, KUKA developed the Famulus, the first six-axis robot in the history of robotics, which impressed with its far greater range of motion and large number of compatible tools. In terms of appearance, too, the Famulus is the forefather of most modern-day industrial robots. Around the same time, competitor models from ASEA, Fanuc and Yaskawa appeared on the market. The ASEA IRb, for example, used the first commercial Intel processor for microcode. ASEA was subsequently bought by energy and automation company ABB, which uses the same basic technology for industrial robots to this very day.

New functions for industrial robots and the arrival of cobots

Robotics has been making great strides ever since. Robots were now able to communicate with each other, take in their surroundings using intelligent sensors or even partially replace production line workers. Hydraulic systems were superseded by electric motors, and even larger robots became affordable. One of the major advances in recent years is the development of cobots – collaborative robots – that help people with their work, while at the same time providing special safeguards against accidents. In the event of an unexpected movement due to external factors, that is to say people or obstacles, the machines immediately switch themselves off to avoid injuring their human colleagues. Even a layman can guide and program the robot arms, which are very similar to a human arm.

Cobots can be mounted on a mobile base and used at a number of different workstations.

Highlight of the history of robotics so far – automation for all

Cobots now enable even SMEs with no special robotics expertise and a relatively small budget to use automation for repetitive processes such as fixing screws and welding, assembly and sorting, and palletising and machine loading. In addition to having the advantage of reducing error rates, using lightweight robots specifically for strenuous and tiring production steps also makes life easier for staff. A robot’s sheer versatility means its value proposition is virtually unbeatable. After all, a cobot is easy to reprogram and fit with appropriate end effectors in the form of end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) to quickly take on all kinds of tasks.

Profile technology from item offers many different options for integrating robots into the working environment, both safely and flexibly.

Although a cobot provides an appropriate basis, it still needs to be integrated both safely and flexibly into the working environment. Components and systems from item offer many different options for this. One prime example of a robotics application using item profile technology is a solution for the semi-automated assembly of products that would otherwise need to be put together by hand. The cobot from Universal Robots that is used is mounted on a device that can be docked onto various work benches, so it essentially works like a flexible tool. A docking station of this kind can be connected to any item Work Bench System. This device, known as a “robot cell”, can also be stowed away after use to save on space. What’s more, it’s ready to use in seconds and can be combined with numerous functional cells for specific tasks – an excellent example of the modularity that has made item stand out from the very beginning.

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