Robots Then And Now

About 15 years ago, an article like this one (Dynamic Duo) was eagerly sought after. Back then, robots were all the rage, the most glamorous thing to happen to manufacturing in decades.

Columns From: 2/5/1999 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Mark Albert

Mark has been writing his Mark: My Word column every month since January, 1981.

About 15 years ago, an article like this one (Dynamic Duo) was eagerly sought after. Back then, robots were all the rage, the most glamorous thing to happen to manufacturing in decades.

Robots captured the popular imagination. They were science fiction come true. Crowds of ordinary citizens flocked to see them (putting the aisles of one Detroit trade show into gridlock.)

Naturally, we were especially interested in robots that tended machine tools. Loading and unloading machining centers or CNC lathes was just the right robotic application for our audience. This application would prove that robots were truly a different form of automation. Robots were flexible. They could be reprogrammed. They could handle different kinds of parts. Why, robots could even be used in a job shop or in tool and die work, it seemed. A good example of such an installation would also prove that here was a potentially huge market that all of those start-up robot companies shouldn't overlook.

But at the time, the best we could come up with were reports on some rather spectacular flexible machining systems that employed robots to move parts from station to station. Although these FMSs were certainly newsworthy, they also proved that robots were not nearly as flexible, nor as practical, nor as economically justifiable as first imagined. In any other setting, automating the transfer of workpieces from spot to spot didn't really get you very far. And an articulated arm robot was certainly technology overkill for the job. We were a long way from the point where very many shops or plants would be ready for robots.

Much has changed since then. And it is interesting that EDM has helped many shops become ready for robots today. EDM introduced users to unattended operation. EDM promoted the use of fixturing and tooling to move setup off-line and to move workpieces from operation to operation without losing location and orientation. In particular, wire EDM made users think about automation for wire threading and multiple part setups. Advances in power supplies, controls, and programming systems made EDM highly productive, pointing to the value of further automation.

In the early 1980s, putting in a robot would have been a great leap into an uncharted frontier. Today, as we see in our cover article, putting in a robot is the logical next step: an evolution, not a revolution.

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