Industrial Robots

A New Generation of Robots in the Workplace
April 1983

Most working robots are blind and insensate. However, vision systems and tactile sensing systems are quickly being perfected.

PERFORMING HOT, HEAVY, and hazardous tasks common to heavy industry (such as spray painting, welding, and machine-tool loading), American robots have slowly grown in number to over six thousand. But the technological and economic developments of the past few years have stimulated a robot boom: by 1990 there should be one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand robots on American factory floors. The swelling robot population will accelerate the well-established trend of decreasing employment in the industrial sector of our economy. Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University estimate that of the twenty-four million industrial jobs today, only a few million will remain by 2010. This second Industrial Revolution is being aided by both the computerization and the mechanization of work, and robots are a dramatic union of the two.

According to the Robot Institute of America—a robotics trade association—the robot “is a reprogrammable multi-functional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through variable programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.” This means the robot is a computer-driven (therefore “reprogrammable”) machine tool, with the mechanical equivalent of shoulder, arm, wrist, and hand (“multi-functional manipulator”), that has a predilection for work (“tasks”). A far cry from the simple definition of the old Czech word robata—“compulsory servitude”—from which Karel Čapek, in his 1921 play R.U.R., coined the word robot.

Most important in making the robot practical have been the miniaturization and decreasing cost of computer hardware and the growing sophistication of software. A robot is only as lucid and flexible as its computer brain. So the development of the microprocessor—the inexpensive “computer-on-a-chip”—was a godsend: packing its onboard microcomputer and elephantine memory, the robot can digest increasingly complex instructions. “The price and performance improvements of the microprocessor,” says Laura Conigliaro, Wall Street’s leading roboticist and a vice-president of Prudential-Bache, “finally allowed robots to show cost benefits over things like labor and other more traditional automated devices.”

This insight was not lost on IBM, United Technologies, Bendix, Westinghouse, GE, GM, and Textron. During the past two years, these leviathans plunged into a robotics industry that was previously considered a faddish, high-tech haven for venture capital and university futurists. Says Conigliaro, “The major corporations bring the industry that Good Housekeeping seal.” And the entry of Japan into the robot market brings robotics a sense of urgency and inevitability.

Applying robot technology to manufacturing with unmatched speed and commitment, Japan has built up a robot population roughly three times that of the United States, and Japanese robots have begun to emigrate in search of work. This spring, Mazak, formerly Yamazaki Machinery, opened a totally automated plant in Florence, Kentucky, similar to the one it operates in Nagoya. It will employ six workers a shift and, by year’s end, will run “unmanned” at night. Likewise, in August, Nissan will open a plant with 220 robots in Smyrna, Tennessee, for the manufacture of pickup trucks. In the wake of such embarrassments to American manufacturers, the Robot Institute, along with the industry it serves, has mobilized to achieve 35 percent-a-year growth and $2 billion in yearly sales by the end of the decade. Already, at leading-edge companies, robots make robots.

Blue-collar labor is worried about being replaced by these steel-collar workers. Harley Shaiken, an MIT labor and productivity expert, suggests that since there are so many serious predictions of substantial job losses, the government should start to develop social policies to deal with the future impact of robotics.

At present, the vast majority of working robots are blind and insensate: if the materials it’s handling or welding are not perfectly oriented coming down the assembly line, a robot cannot perform its task. However, vision systems (using computer-linked cameras) and tactile sensing systems (using strain gauges and microswitches in the robot’s “fingers”) are quickly being perfected. These systems provide the robot with the sort of sensory feedback it needs to interact with its environment, to become an “intelligent robot”: one that can perform proficiently in the largely untapped domains of small-parts assembly, packaging, sorting, electronics, inspection, and testing.

With these advances, predicts Bill Tanner, president of Productivity Systems, a company that packages and integrates robot turnkey systems for manufacturers, the worker will become the servant of the robot. He’ll feed it and fan it and put his arm around it and maybe even tell it he loves it every now and then.