Record Number of Assembly Line Robots Ordered in 2021

industrial robot purchases up 37% over 2020

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

More jobs are being automated during the pandemic for several reasons. Companies claim they have struggled to get human workers back onto assembly lines and in other industrial roles since the COVID-19 outbreak. Industrial robots date back to 1938.

industrial robot arm welding in factory
As factories and other industrial operations struggle to get workers back into pre-pandemic jobs, many companies are purchasing robots to handle the workload. Photo By Factory_Easy / Shutterstock

For the first nine months of 2021, orders for industrial robots climbed 37% as compared to the same period in 2020, according to Reuters. A total of 29,000 robots were ordered to fulfill roles. Companies have cited shortages of human workers as well as high demands. Surprisingly, in the first three quarters of 2021, auto makers no longer made up the majority of all robot purchases, with other businesses combining to outpace car manufacturing robots.

The implementation of robots in a factory or factory-like setting to this extent has been a long time coming. In his video series Robotics, Dr. John Long, Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College, said it’s taken more than 80 years.

Griffith P. Taylor, Man of the Future

“The first record we have of a programmable pick-and-place robot is actually quite recent, from 1938,” Dr. Long said. “Griffith P. Taylor published an article called ‘An Automatic Block-Setting Crane: Meccano Model Controlled by a Robotic Unit’—and he published this in Meccano Magazine.”

According to Dr. Long, Taylor’s robot picks up a series of bricks and creates a circular stack automatically in approximately 50 minutes. It had one rotational degree of freedom to let the arm swing around, another to allow its grip to swivel, and then the gripper itself had jaws that rotate to hold the bricks.

Finally, it had what Dr. Long called “two translational degrees of freedom with prismatic joints,” which he compared to being able to change the length of sections in your arm. This totaled in five degrees of freedom to pick and place bricks. The robot was automatically controlled and programmable.

“Taylor’s pick-and-place robot from 1938 fits the international definition, by the way, for industrial robots, which was created by the International Organization for Standardization,” Dr. Long said. “‘Automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.'”

After Years of Waiting…

According to Dr. Long, it took more than 20 years for Taylor’s idea to catch on in industrial application. He cited the first U.S. patent for a commercially successful industrial robot, which was issued in 1961 to George Devol. The title of the patent—”programmed article transfer”—is far less exciting than what it did.

“Article transfer is a fancy name for ‘pick and place,'” Dr. Long said. “What you see when you look at the figures from the patent are tracks along which the transfer apparatus moves. Parallel to those tracks runs a conveyor belt. The arm of the transfer apparatus reaches across the conveyor belt, grabs cartons from the pallet, and then transfers those cartons back to the conveyor belt.”

Devol had formed his company, Unimation, in 1956 when he applied for his patent. Unimation, which is short for universal automation, became the first company to build robots for industrial use, called Unimates.

“The first Unimate robot was installed in 1962 in a General Motors factory, the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in Ternstedt, New Jersey,” Dr. Long said. “GM used the Unimate to lift hot pieces of metal from a die-casting machine and stack them.”

Less than 60 years later, as of 2020, more than 2.7 million robots worked in factories worldwide.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily