To understand what robot technology is available it is useful to understand how it has developed over time. Many are shocked to discover that robotic automation is both capable and affordable of automating their production, and are then utterly astounded that this has been the case for over 40 years. The latest robots are faster, safer and easier to use, but a lot of the technology of the robotic revolution is very mature.

Talos

In Ancient Greek mythology Talos is a bronze giant, living statue or automaton that patrolled the shore of Crete, circling the island three times a day and throwing boulders at passing pirates. He could also glow with heat and burn his enemies. Given this and the description of his death where a fluid runs from his heel it is probable that the story is derived from the process of casting bronze statues.

Talos in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts
Talos in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts

 

The Golem

In Jewish folklore a golem is a creature made from inanimate materials and magically given life by its creator. While obedient and powerful the Golem was described as slow, clumsy and dangerous. It also took instruction too literally. The Golem story is seen by some as a precursor to both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Karel Capek’s Universal Robots.

The Turk

The Turk was one of many automata made during the 1700’s. Most were based on clock making technology, using springs, cogs, escapements and using pegged drums to give instructions. The Turk was apparently capable of a mean game of chess, however there is speculation that the cogs and gears were simply for show and the real mechanisms were controlled by a person inside the box.

A replica of the Turk automaton
A replica of the Turk automaton

 

The Jacquard loom

First demonstrated in 1801 the Jacquard loom allowed the weaving of complex patterns by using a sequence of holes punched into cards that dictated which thread is raised or lowered in the fabric. Charles Babbage used punched cards for programming his “Analytical Engine” as did IBM for their first transistorised computer.

The punched cards hang in a belt above this Jacquard Loom Photo: Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin
The punched cards hang in a belt above this Jacquard Loom Photo: Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin

 

Karel Capek’s Play: Rossum’s Universal Robots,

Written in 1920, this play is where we get the word robot (Capek’s brother derived it from the Czech word for slave). The robots in Capek’s story were synthetic organic humanoids, like replicants or androids, that were made to serve humans. In this dystopian story the robots eventually rebel against their creators. Very successful both in Europe and the USA this futuristic and some may say prophetic story had elements of dark humour yet hope for the future. Capek was strongly anti-fascist and the themes of control, subservience, obedience and rebellion were at the core of this work.

The robot rebellion in R.U.R.
The robot rebellion in R.U.R.

The Unimate

Many consider the Unimate Automatic Transfer Machines developed by George Devol for General Motors as the first industrial robot. Using hydraulics these machines were cumbersome but effective. They were designed to do heavy, dirty work that was harmful and unpleasant for humans. They were programmed to do a task in much the same way as todays industrial robots and set many of the standards for future development. The main points to consider are that the Unimate was effective, reprogrammable and autonomous.

The Unimate industrial robot developed by George Devol used hydraulics.
The Unimate industrial robot developed by George Devol used hydraulics.

ASEA IRB 6

Designed and built as in in house project the IRB6 was a truly remarkable robot that would still be in use over 30 years after it was first introduced in 1973. Constructed largely of aluminium castings, driven by electric motors and controlled by microprocessor this robot was at the very edge of technology.

The IRB6 used helical ball screws to drive axis 2 and 3 which required lubricating every 300hrs, these ball screws were very prone to wear and caused a significant loss of accuracy. The IRB 6 was a 5-axis machine – axis 4 and 5 were driven via a series of linkage rods that prevented the rotation of the top arm.


The IRB 6 revolutionised automation technology in Europe. It was employed in the first “lights out” factories and was used in welding, handling, machine tending and grinding applications among others. Production of the IRB6 continued until at least 1989 and they were employed far beyond this. An IRB 6 that was installed in the UK in 1977 was finally retired in 2003 after 26 years service in a MIG welding application making it one of the longest serving robots on record.

The ASEA IRB6 and its chief designer Björn Weichbrodt.
The ASEA IRB6 and its chief designer Björn Weichbrodt. Photo:ABB

 

Unimation/Vicarm Puma Robot

Developed by Victor Scheinman’s company Vicarm the PUMA was similar to the Stanford arm. Seeing an opportunity to diversify away from their hydraulic robots  Unimation purchased Vicarm in 1977. Unimation had also purchased the rights to the VAL programming language, that was very advanced at the time. By putting these two acquisitions together the PUMA was possibly the most advanced robot of its type. Originally designed for industry the PUMA actually got a lot of use in academic circles.

The movement diagram of the Puma 700 robot
The movement diagram of the Puma 700 robot

ASEA/ABB IRB 2000

Introduced in 1984 this was another pivotal robot as this was the first industrial robot driven by brushless AC servomotors. This significantly increased the speed and power of the robot while reducing maintenance requirements. Capable of working for thousands of hours in harsh conditions the IRB 2000 had (and indeed still has) incredible reliability.

Many were employed in automotive plants MIG welding chassis, because the IRB 2000 was so dependable the consistency and reliability of production was dramatically improved.

Motoman K6

Motoman is a brand of the Yaskawa Corporation and in the early 1990’s their K6 robots were among the most capable small capacity (5kg) industrial robots available. Designed primarily for MIG welding the K6 with ERC controller made controlling and programming quicker and easier than before. The arm itself was also well regarded for its neat design and reliability. Well balanced, fast, accurate and flexible the K6 was described as the Rolls Royce of robots but was actually relatively affordable.

ABB IRB6000

With a payload of 120kg and a reach of 2.4m the introduction of the IRB 6000 in the early 1990s would set benchmarks for automotive robots that are still in place today. These heavy and tough machines allowed full automation of spot welding in car plants. The IRB6000 was not just more reliable than its predecessors it was also quicker and more agile with repeatability of well under 1mm.

The IRB 6000 used Siemens motors and exceptionally strong and accurate gearboxes. Despite their cost when new Ford, General Motors and many other automotive plants installed these robots by the thousand.

ABB IRB6000 industrial robots on an automotive line photo:ABB
ABB IRB6000 industrial robots on an automotive line in the early 1990’s. With 2.4m reach and 120kg payload these were the template for todays car factory robots.  photo:ABB