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The Future is Now for the Robot Revolution

May 15, 2008
The next wave of robots will be remarkably human in appearance and function.

Although Phase One of what's been called the "Robot Revolution" is nearly 50 years old, it continues to dominate automotive assembly. But that initial phase offers hardly a hint of what's to come. Look for new robot generations -- some remarkably humanoid -- to change the fundamentals of robot usage throughout our culture, both as industrial and nonindustrial solutions. Both Honda and Toyota are prototyping humanoid personal-assist robots, and Motoman now offers a humanoid design for industrial applications.

Remarkably, Phase Two, the next step of the Robot Revolution, was predicted long before Phase One's beginnings in 1961. That was when the first robot started working in General Motors Corp.'s Ternstedt, N.J., plant. (The robot, known as Unimate 001, eventually became part of the Smithsonian collection.)

Hints of what's now to come (Phase Two) were even evident as early as 1923 at the first performance of R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Capek. Visionaries such as Isaac Asimov saw a broader role for robots, one not limited to a factory assembly department, explains Jeffrey A. Burnstein, executive vice president, Robotic Industries Association (RIA).

Ironically, by 1989, the success of Phase One seemed to have dimmed some hopes of robotics ascending to Phase Two's broader, more pervasive role. Instead of proceeding to fulfill the potential of forever changing the man-machine relationship across society, robots were seemingly forever relegated to the dull, dirty and dangerous factory job category. Worldwide, installed robots numbered about 200,000 in 1989.

Recently introduced for industrial applications, the SDA10 robot from Motoman Inc. uses two arms to bring humanoid size and operating advantages to assembly tasks.But some experts were still hopeful -- especially Joseph F. Engelberger, founder of Unimation, the first robot company, who went on to enthusiastically write about Phase Two in his 1989 book, Robots In Service. The dimensions of his optimism are revealed by his understanding of the 1989 robot reality in the book's preface:

"At this writing, the industrial robot has become a ho-hum product. To some the robot is no more than a mechanical computer peripheral; some articulated hardware that might be useful to CIM (computer-integrated manufacturing). The ranks of robot manufacturers have been thinned by bankruptcy and merger. Profitability is almost nonexistent and annual sales have plateaued or even declined."

Engelberger's optimism wasn't even diminished by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' study that predicted that nonindustrial robot applications at best would constitute only 1% of total robot applications. Instead, Engelberger asserted the opposite -- "that by 1995 [the category will] be the largest class of robot applications." Today's robot marketers tend to only fault Engelberger on the timing of his predictions. For example, Craig Jennings, president and COO of Motoman Inc., says Engelberger was simply ahead of his time. "Today's robots can be mobile, sensate and artificially intelligent. The science fiction role of personal servitude is no longer far-fetched. Stand-alone robots that could pump gas, fill prescriptions, cook and serve fast food, clean commercial buildings or aid the handicapped or elderly are real prospects."

Jennings adds that Engelberger's conclusion still applies: "Most of the excitement lies ahead of us in this still-embryonic discipline."

Robotic Population Explosion

In Phase Two, expect to see a significant boost in the numbers of robots applied to both industrial and nonindustrial applications. RIA's Burnstein anticipates substantial potential for growth -- even within current established factory automation markets. He says the global population now exceeds 1 million robots in industrial applications, yet that represents 10% of the applications that could benefit from robotic automation. Burnstein estimates that 65% of current North American robot orders go to automakers and suppliers.

The robots that will define Phase Two are in varied stages of development with fresh conceptual approaches and design innovations. Design conventions of the past will be challenged. Consider that robot designs of the past were normally separate, discrete production tools. That's changing as robotic functionality is being integrated with other production equipment.

Seegrid Corp. introduced its GP8 robotic pallent truck at NA 2008.One example was introduced at the recent NA 2008 material handling show where Seegrid Corp. introduced its new GP8 robotic pallet truck. With an 8,000-lb. capacity, the GP8 truck can transport pallets to assigned locations, use the robot to automatically position them and return to the original starting point or another pre-assigned location for more work. The GP8 employs Seegrid's industrial mobile robotics technology, which enables it to move through manufacturing, warehousing and distribution operations using stereo cameras to build a reliable 3-D map of the environment. The vehicle then uses the map and its own reasoning capability to navigate a predetermined path to complete its assigned transport task.

According to Scott Freidman, Seegrid's CEO, "It enables warehouse operators to maintain their hard-learned and hard-earned best practices while giving them a new tool to address the challenges they face today -- labor shortages, ergonomic and safety issues, and cost reduction."

Industrial Humanoids

Another example of a design that will serve as a fundamental change agent comes from Motoman, the U.S. robot technology provider of Japan's Yaskawa Electric Corp. Recently introduced for industrial applications, the Motoman-SDA10 also demonstrates characteristics suitable for serving as a personal robot, says Jennings.

Strikingly humanoid in appearance, the SDA10 is a dual-arm robot mounted on a base that visually suggests a gowned female torso. Using Yaskawa-invented actuator technology, the SDA10 is able to add more axes as well as miniaturize the components responsible for arm motion. Size is reduced without jeopardizing 20-kilogram performance, adds Jennings. He says a 50-kilogram capability is being developed. The result is a robot that can perform humanoid tasks -- the activities requiring multi-arm and hand coordination where two conventional robots won't fit.

Jennings says the humanoid size and performance of the SDA10 can offer third-world industries a truly functional alternative when it comes to substituting for women in undesirable work environments. "The design goal in creating the two-arm robot was to create the form, fit and function of a woman that would typically be performing various assembly tasks. The result: a design matching an average woman's height, size and slimness." Jennings hopes to sell 1,300 in 2008, 2,600 in 2009 and 5,200 in 2010. He says communicating the functional advantages of the humanoid design will be a marketing focus.

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