Unimate: the First Industrial Robot and Why it Failed
The first fully functioning industrial robot was named Unimate. It worked tediously on the assembly line of General Motors during the 1960s. Created by American inventor George Devol, the robot had a 4000-pound arm that allowed die-casting and welding of metal parts for an automotive body.
Assembled in Ewing Township, New Jersey, the first industrial robot had the sole purpose of making auto assembly easy and avoids worker injury. It removed hazardous tasks from the workers’ hand preventing loss of limb and exhaust gas poisoning.
A concept that revolutionized the manufacturing world
George Devol was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1912. He was a technological genius who started his own company at the early age of 20. He was also able to patent several hundreds of inventions including the barcode and the digital magnetic recording.
Devol’s Unimate robot was conceived from a 1954 patent which introduced automation in the manufacturing industry. It cited the importance of making general purpose machines to simplify tasks and can be used in a diversity of applications. Unimate was built by Devol and Joseph Engelberger’s robot manufacturing company, Unimation. Established in 1956, Unimation became the first robotics company in the US.
A stiff competition that killed the American car manufacturing industry
Though Devol’s invention was widely accepted in the US’ car manufacturing industry, several world events rose to hinder the success of the manufacturing industry. Among the problems faced by the US were the steady stream of wars both in the East and the South.
Japan, for instance, became the most viable car manufacturing giant because of the economic prosperity the country experienced during the mid-1900s. They were brandishing their tag line, “Made in Japan” with superior quality and good workmanship.
The invention of newer robotic techniques including hydraulics and electric-driven robots also paved the way for the failure of Devol’s technology. Hydraulics and electricity ushered a new age of robotics where the movement was much smoother and body weight became lighter.
Unimate may have been the first industrial robot, but it was not able to withstand technological changes. It stands a living reminder of man’s exploration in the world of robotics. Unimation, the robotics company, was sold to various firms including White Westinghouse. In 1989, it landed in the hands of the French-based company Staubli.