At GM and Xerox, new applications are redefining both the strategic value and appearance of robots.
Robots preceded Steve Holland at General Motors Corp. (GM), but now as their "boss," he knows where they're going and their growing strategic value. Holland's automatons first entered GM plant floors in 1961, a decade before he joined and began researching new tasks for them at the company's Technical Center in Warren, Mich. He says GM's robots now number 25,000 and that applications are headed toward new, nontraditional manufacturing tasks. He predicts those applications will soon dominate. For new users, Holland, now GM's director of controls, robotics and welding, says the challenge is to recognize the rapidly evolving potential. "The popular image of a technology like robotics tends to be categorized and limited by early successes." GM's first robot, a Unimate made by Unimation Corp., unloaded hot, heavy parts from die casting machines at a Ternstedt, N.J., plant. "Then we applied them to spot welding, painting, dispensing and assembly operations." Holland says GM's strategy with robots is to enable operators in the plant to reach and maintain world-class quality. "Robots bring quality and consistency that you simply can't achieve in any other way." He says nobody makes automobiles or trucks on this planet without using robots. "We've progressed to considering robotic alternatives to operations that are already automated. Instead of using custom [conventional] dedicated equipment, we're seeking to take advantage of the flexibility of a robot to perform those same automated operations more consistently with more common equipment and lower cost." Holland says the benefits of the approach are not limited to auto plants. "We're beginning to see robots replace other forms of automation and do those same jobs better and more cost effectively and at equal or better quality. For example, robots can be an effective alternative to dedicated transfer equipment or conveyors. And that might be possible with an existing robot (one already at the site) intermittently performing some other operation. Robots, remember, are becoming more flexible, and control advances are making them easier to reprogram and implement. In addition, robot prices have come down by a factor of two or three in the last ten to fifteen years." Holland also sees robotic mechanisms adapted to new and more varied jobs. Some of them are already working at GM. One example: Cobots, mechanisms that work in concert with an operator to amplify human strength. (Conventional robots work alone.) Another unconventional example is GM's PAAS (Programmable Adaptable Assembly System) technology deployed at GM's new Lansing Grand River plant. PAAS units, small basketball-sized robots, serve as programmable parts holding devices. They eliminate the need for dedicated fixtures. Holland predicts the programmable part holding robots eventually will become the dominant type of robot sold. An even bigger departure from the conventional -- reconfigurable modular robots -- is under development at Palo Alto Research Center Inc., the Xerox Corp. subsidiary. Lead researcher Mark Yim's team is focusing on building robots for complex tasks, using many copies of a single simple module. "Eventually, guided by software, these modular robots will reconfigure themselves to bring more flexibility to manufacturing applications," Yim says.