At its core, the definition of an industrial robot is actually fairly straightforward: it refers to any type of programmable, mechanical device that can be used in place of a person in this type of environment. More often than not they are used to perform tasks that are either dangerous or repetitive, all while freeing up the valuable time of human employees to focus on those matters that truly need their attention.

A few different types of industrial robots can fall into this category, including both articulated arm robots and human-assist robots. But while all of this may seem like a relatively new advancement, the history of robotics in manufacturing actually began significantly longer ago than most people realize.

The Humble Beginnings of Manufacturing Robots

Believe it or not, the earliest example of an industrial robot that would fit today’s definition first debuted all the way back in 1937. It was then that a man named Griffith Taylor developed a crane-like machine that was powered by an electric motor. It came with five axes of movement and included not only grab functionality, but grab and rotation as well.

But what really made this robot impressive is that it was automated through the use of paper tape with punches in it that were used to energize the solenoids inside. Once deployed, this robot could be used to stack wooden blocks in patterns that were dictated by the paper tape it was being fed.

A few years later in 1954, George Devol filed the first patent for an industrial robot. This model was slightly more advanced, being used to transfer objects from one location to another – so long as those two points were within about 12 feet of one another.

Industrial robots made a significant leap forward at the beginning of the 1980s, when they were being manufactured in very large numbers around the world. These units were notable because they were controlled by a microprocessor, thus giving them a larger amount of operational freedom that their predecessors lacked.

Starting in 1981, the first robotic arm with motors installed directly onto its joints was developed by Takeo Kanade. This was important, because the design allowed it to operate both faster and more accurately than previous robotic arms.

FANUC entered into a joint venture with General Motors Corporation in 1982, called GMFanuc to produce and market robots in the United States. This same year the AC servo motor was developed.

The Motoman ERC control system was developed in 1988, itself important because it gave operators the ability to leverage up to 12 axes of motion. This was the highest number in any industrial robot at the time, though it would be surpassed a few years later when a new controller increased this number to 27 axes.

In 1992, FANUC built its own prototype, for what became known as the first intelligent robot. Although it wasn’t until a few years later in 1999 when this model would go into full production.

Flash forward today and what we know of as industrial robots are getting faster, more efficient, more “intelligent” and more versatile all the time. They’re already capable of working largely without human intervention thanks to advancements like machine learning and artificial intelligence. But throughout all of this, one recurring theme has remained the same:

Robots in manufacturing aren’t about replacing human employees at all, as so many people feared in those early days. Rather, it’s about supporting and empowering those human employees – creating safer working environments while giving them the freedom to work on those jobs that demand their attention.

When you consider how truly far robots in manufacturing have come since even just the 1980s, it’s truly exciting to think about what the next decade – and beyond – has in store for us all.