ince I wrote my first article for Automation magazine in 1996,

industrial robots have been taken up in ever increasing numbers in an expanding range of industries and applications. Take Sweden, for example. In 1994, the country had 92 robots per 10,000 employees, but in 2015, this number had increased to 142. The biggest market for industrial robots in the world, China, bought 57,096 robots in 2014. Much of this growth is due to the robot

evolution, which really began with the Unimate, the first programmable industrial robot built in 1954 by American inventor George Devol. This robot, which used drum memory, was installed in a General Motors plant in 1959 to lift hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine. Weighing 1.8 tonnes, this robot marked the beginning of the industrial robot’s long and successful career in the automotive industry. Another industry-first occurred in 1974,

with the launch of the ASEA IRB 6, the world’s first microprocessor-controlled robot. Featuring five-axis movement and able to lift 6kg, this model could be used for material handling, packing, polishing and welding. ASEA merged with Brown, Boveri & Cie in 1988 to form what we know today as ABB. Much has changed since then; consider

that the IRB 6 robot had a wardrobe- sized controller using Intel’s 8008 8-bit microprocessor. The controller had several buttons to operate the system. Although this kind of controller seems

antiquated compared to today’s intuitive hand-held solutions, it was an innovative leap compared to its contemporaries. The Unimate was operated using a sequential control system. Similar to programming a washing machine using set steps, this provided no control over the robot’s path, which was very limiting - unlike the S1 with its path and sensor control. Nowadays we are familiar with the


ABB’s YuMi robot’s inherently safe design enables it to operate in very close collaboration with humans

The past 25 years have seen massive leaps forward in robotic technology that have helped to transform the industrial landscape. New capabilities such as vision and force control, coupled with a steady reduction in both complexity and price, have led robots to effectively ‘evolve’, enabling them to handle a growing range of production tasks. Mike Wilson, President of the British Automation & Robot Association (BARA) and UK sales & marketing manager, ABB Robotics, looks at some of the changes that have taken place in robot technology since the first edition of Automation magazine was published

Mike Wilson, President of the British Automation & Robot Association (BARA) and UK sales & marketing manager, ABB Robotics

simple screens of smart devices. Today’s FlexPendant uses this same technology, offering a touch-sensitive screen and the ability to quickly create customised set up and monitoring displays. With the ‘Internet of Things’ calling for connectivity over a number of devices, ABB has also developed the soft teach- pendant, an application which runs on any Windows 8 device including tablets. This allows the user to programme, commission, operate and supervise robots on the move. Perhaps the most revolutionary of the

Launched in 1974, the ASEA IRB 6 was the world’s first microprocessor- controlled robot

developments in robot control technology comes as a result of ABB’s recent innovation YuMi. The collaborative dual-arm robot can be ‘taught’ using lead-through programming whereby YuMi’s arms and grippers are guided through a series of movements that are then recorded using the YuMi app. This reduces the complexity to a level that is user-friendly – gone are the days that

you needed to be proficient in coding to operate a robot. Of course, YuMi’s ability to work safely

alongside people is central to its success. Weighing just 38kg, the collaborative robot is light-weight, has no pinch- points and uses motion control technology to ensure that unexpected impacts result in the robot pausing within milliseconds. In comparison with the IRB 6’s limited

five-axis movement, YuMi’s human-like design makes the robot capable of 14 axes. This offers manufacturers greater dexterity and precision. Furthermore, YuMi’s controller is embedded into its base keeping the robot’s footprint small enough to be moved from process to process. Arguably, the technological experience

of Generation Y would lead them to expect no less than ABB’s latest advancements in robot control. But when the strides that ABB has made over the past four decades are considered, from the IRB 6 with its S1 chip controller to YuMi’s extensive capabilities, the future of robotic automation looks more exciting than ever. Moreover, these developments are set to encourage even further use of robot automation by manufacturers across the globe.

ABB Robotics T: 01908 350300

British Automation & Robot Association (BARA) T: 020 8773 8111


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