Archive for the ‘Early Industrial Robots’ Category

1892 – Crane – Seward Babbitt (American)

CRANE by SEWARD S. BABBITT. See full patent details here.

Patent number: 484870
Filing date: Jun 13, 1892
Issue date: Oct 25, 1892

Seward Babbitt's crane first mentioned around 1980 in terms of robotics history and timelines in textbooks, but in terms of enabling technology only, rather than being identified as a robot in itself.  That distinction is getting lost in modern references to this invention.  Its included in my timeline only to highlight that it is not a robot.  It shares characteristics of manipulator arms only.

The first mentioned of Babbitt's invention in terms of robotics that I can find is from The Journal of Epsilon Pi Tau – Volumes 6-10 – Page 98
"In 1892, Seward Babbitt of Pittsburgh patented a rotary crane with a motorized gripper for removing hot ingots from furnaces. "

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1934-78 – Spray-paint robot patents – Pollard Jr, Pollard, Roselund and DeVilbiss Comp. – (American)

Pollard Jr

SPRAY PAINTING MACHINE by  Willard Lacey George Pollard Jr. See full patent here.
Patent number: 2213108
Filing date: Oct 29, 1934
Issue date: Aug 27, 1940

Pollard Sr


Patent number: 2286571
Filing date: Apr 22, 1938
Issue date: Jun 16, 1942



Patent number: 2344108
Filing date: Aug 17, 1939
Issue date: Mar 14, 1944

Why group these together?

In my timeline on the first Industrial Robots, I list the following:

 1934 – Programmable Spray-painting patent by Pollard Jr.
 1935-7 – "The Robot Gargantua" by 'Bill' Griffith P. Taylor – First 'pick-and-place' Robot.
 1938, April – Pollard's (Sr.) Automated positional spray-painting patent
 1939, August – Roselund filed his automated spray-painting patent.
 1941 – Isaac Asimov, aged 21 in May 1941, invents the word 'Robotics' in a robot story entitled "Liar!".
 1947 – Del Harder, a Ford executive, coins the word "Automation".
 1954, March – The Brit Cyril Kenward filed his " Positioning or Manipulating Apparatus" patent.
 1954, December – Devol's "Programmed Article Transfer" patent filed and granted.
 1955 – "PLANOBOT" by Joe Brown
 1959 – "Transferobot" by Shelley
 1959 – Working Robot and Prototype Unimate by Devol & Engelberger
 1960 – "Versatran"
 1961 – 1st "Unimate", installed at GM
 1962 – "Unimation" formed by Devol and Engelberger
 1962 – "Fleximan" by  Anthony Kaye
 1965-7 – Ole Molaug developed his Trallfa spray-paint robot. First production run in 1967. Now ABB.

The below extract from an article on The True Origins of Parallel Robots by Ilian Bonev published on January 24, 2003 as a result of talking to the now late Mr. Willard L.G. Pollard Jr. It suggests that the control unit from Pollard Jr.'s patent was used with the mechanical manipulator from Roselund's patent [The Roselund patent is assigned to the DeVilbiss Company]. It further mentions that Pollard Jr. issed a license to DeVilbiss to use his patent in 1937. The article then suggests a prototype was built prior to the granting of Roselund's patent, but, to date, I've found no corrobative evidence to support this. To that extent, I've seen no evidence, including advertisments, trade magazines, etc where, if these 'robots' [automatic spray-painting machines] were actually built, were also offered to the public.

At this time I need to say that DeVilbiss secured a license to sell Trallfa spray-painting robots in 1978. 

So between 1937 and 1978 I've seen no evidence to date that DeVilbiss prototyped, manufactured and sold an automatic spray-painting machine as shown in any of the Pollard's nor Roselund patents, only hearsay from  Ilian Bonev's article (see below).

If anyone out there has any evidence of DeVilbiss robots or automated spray-painting machines from this period please contact me so we can attempt to resolve this open and important issue.

In 1975, another engineer, inventor by the name of Jerome Lemelson offered DeVilbiss license to patents including US3412431, which included a gantry crane and positional controller for a molding machine, very similar to a spray-painting robot. DeVilbiss did not ake up this offer.

This became of issue when Levelson filed for patent infringement against DeVilbiss.

Its not clear to me why this became of issue if DeVilbiss had its own patents. Possibly it was just the controller component, of which Pollard Jr had offered earlier on license. Had the license expired? 

The Lemelson lawsuit became problematic when DeVilbiss was sold to Illinois Tool Works Inc. ITW eventually lost and Lemelson picked up a cool US$17Million in 1992. See the whole legal story here.

The True Origins of Parallel Robots 
By Ilian Bonev
Special thanks to Willard L.G. Pollard, Klaus Cappel, Mike Beeson (Dunlop Tyres), and Sam Evans (British National Museum of Science and Industry)

Recently, I had the rare opportunity to talk with two of the pioneers in the field of parallel robots, Mr. Willard L.G. Pollard Jr. and Mr. Klaus Cappel, and to learn remarkable facts about a third one, Dr. Eric Gough, and his still existent tire-testing machine. This feature article makes a number of key revelations that will rewrite the history of parallel robots. Through this new look at the past, a major lesson should be learned concerning the lack of communication between industry and academia.

Was the First Industrial Robot a Parallel Robot?
A decade later and only seventeen years after the term "robot" was coined, a new parallel robot was invented for automated spray painting by Willard L.V. Pollard. Was this the commonly claimed first industrial robot (see for example BusinessWeek's Robot Milestones)?
In the parallel kinematics community, Pollard's parallel robot is well known as the first industrial parallel robot design. This ingenious invention represents a five-DOF three-branched parallel robot. In this parallel robot, three proximal arms are pivoted by rotary motors fixed to the base, and three distal arms are connected to the three proximal arms via universal joints. Two of the distal arms are connected to the third via ball joints, while a tool head is connected to the third distal arm via a universal joint. Thus, the three motors determine the position of the tool head, while its orientation is controlled by two other motors fixed at the base and transmitting the motion to the tool head via flexible rotary cables. Pollard's parallel robot was intended for spray painting but, unfortunately, was never built. 
The first spatial industrial parallel robot, patented in 1942 (US Patent No. 2,286,571).
The first industrial robot to be built was not the above one and cannot be credited to the same Willard Pollard… The engineer who co-designed the first industrial robot was Willard L.V. Pollard's son, Willard L.G. Pollard Jr.
On October 29, 1934, Willard Pollard Jr. filed a patent for a spray painting machine. The patent consists of two parts: (1) an electrical control system and (2) a mechanical manipulator. The control system consists basically of perforated films, the hole density of which is directly proportional to the speed of each motor. The mechanical manipulator, on the other hand, is a parallel robot based on a pantograph actuated by two rotary motors at the base. Pollard Jr.'s patent was eventually issued on June 16, 1942, but, in the meantime, a license was granted to the DeVilbiss company in 1937. In 1941, DeVilbiss, later to become the first industrial robot supplier, completed the first prototype under the direction of Harold Roselund. Roselund's spray painting robot, later patented in 1944, was not a parallel robot and used only the control system proposed by Pollard Jr.

1965-7 – Trallfa spray-paint robot – Ole Molaug and Sverre Bergene (Norweigan)

Images and text source from here.

The original name of ABB’s robot factory at Bryne was Trallfa, a company that pioneered development of a robot for spray painting in 1965 – 67. It has its origin in a company manufacturing wheelbarrows, sack trolleys and transport equipment, which was founded in Bryne in 1941 by Nils Underhaug.
Nils Underhaug, a young man from Nærbø, wanted to enter into the automobile repair trade. By the age of 17, he had already created his first automobile, a monster with four bicycle wheels and a 1 ½ horse power engine, which scared the horses in the neighborhood and aroused the surrounding farmers’ disapproval. But it worked! Little did he know then that he would later come to play an important part in the world of the automotive industry.
Nils completed his education and apprenticeship as an auto mechanic and worked for some years repairing automobiles. In 1941 Nils decided to start his own company. Equipped with a case of automobile tools and USD 2000 in the bank, plus an optimistic outlook on life, he started a trolley factory – Trallfa – on February 1, 1941.
Nils started out with only two employees. The factory grew steadily, and soon Trallfa could move into its first real factory building. Wheelbarrows became their specialty. New designs were created, prices lowered and the new wheelbarrows became a great success. The wheelbarrows were painted by hand, and despite the fact that several workers with modern equipment worked in shifts, painting became a bottleneck.
In 1962, Jæren Automation Association, with Nils Underhaug as chairman, employed Ole Molaug as manager. Molaug was a young mechanical engineer from a small place at the farthest end of a fjord in western Norway. After graduating from technical college, he returned to his father’s workshop to earn a living at the wood turning lathe. He early had the idea to use electronic devices on the shop floor, and wondered a lot about constructing a robot. He learned electronics through private
studies. Later he received a grant from the Research Council of Norway to continue his studies.
Molaug brought his robot idea up for Nils Underhaug and were challenged to come up with specific plans for a spray painting robot. Ole studied the spray painting methods at Trallfa and on July 1, 1964, he presented a paper outlining his idea accompanied by a simple sketch, estimating the cost to USD 1500 – 2000. Nils Underhaug gave Ole Molaug the go ahead.
Molaug took charge of the electronics and tool maker Sverre Bergene from Trallfa was entrusted with solving the mechanical and hydraulic challenges. They worked at night and into the small hours, while doing their ordinary work during the day. Even though colleagues began to gossip about “those expensive toys”, they never lost faith.
In the summer of 1966, the robot had progressed far enough to be introduced at the Trallfa stand of the local exhibition “Jærdagen”. There it executed profile drawings, and crowds gathered to see this strange contraption performing.
So far so good, but would it really work? The opportunity came in February, 1967, when the robot had a trial run at the conveyor in the factory’s paint shop. Nils Underhaug had the honor of pressing the button to start the robot. Start it did, and painted wheelbarrow boxes passing along the conveyor – one after the other. The results were excellent.

To make a long story short, Trallfa decided to go into production with its robot. In 1969 the first industrial spray painting robot were delivered to Sweden for bath tub enameling. The company established itself early as the leading supplier of robots for spray painting applications, as it still is today in ABB.

Also, Ccontributed greatly on the electronics side.

The above images from Tormod Henne, December 2009 book on the history of ABB robots.

Ole Molaug

1954, March – “Positioning or Manipulating Apparatus” patent by Cyril Kenward (British)

Another early patent that looks surprisingly modern was granted for a robot called 'Improvements in or relating to Positioning or Manipulating Apparatus' invented by Cyril W. Kenward. The British patent was filed March 29, 1954 and was published August 21, 1957, and preceded George Devol's first robot patent by several months. It is an interesting parallel that Britain, birthplace of the machine tool industry, would also pioneer the idea of robotics.
Hydraulically powered, this dual arm, gantry mounted robot was years ahead of its time. The patent even speaks of robot self-replication. Featuring detachable grippers and gantry mounting, it could well be used as an illustration for a current research contract proposal. Another key feature of this design was complete internal porting of hydraulics and internal wiring, problems that went unaddressed in early hydraulic robots and often is not achieved in modern day hydraulic robots. Figure above shows the six-axes, hydraulically powered arm in cross section.

Text source: Robot Evolution: The Development of Anthrobotics By Mark E. Rosheim, 1994

Interesting that some comments made around this patent is that it was not successful.  It should be noted that the patent was only a British patent, and not filed in the US or other countries. When the "Versatran" and "Unimate" robots were to be imported into the UK in 1967, these clearly infringed the Kenward patent. It was reported at the time that this matter was resolved by a "cash payment". Further, the author of the article, Douglas Hall, adds "It did, however, illustrate how people in britain often have good ideas for inventions but then have to sit on the sidelines as noone is prepared to back them".

1958-62 – “VERSATRAN” Industrial Robot – Harry Johnson & Veljko Milenkovic

In 1958, the American Machine and Foundry (AMF) Thermatool Corporation (later known as AMF Corporation, later acquired by Prab Company of Michigan)  initiated an R&D project for a Versatile Transfer Machine, or VERSATRAN, a programmable cylindrical coordinate frame robotic arm designed by Harry Johnson and Veljko Milenkovic. AMF introduced Model 102, a continuous-path transfer device, and Model 212, a point-to-point transfer device, in 1962. 


3243.02 | AUTOMATIC HANDLING EQUIPMENT CALLED 'VERSATRAN'. (1:02:10:00 – 1:05:52:00) 1967
Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Date found in the old record – 23/02/1967.

Various shots of the 'Versatran' – an artificial arm and a hand construction grab which is controlled from large panels. Developed in the USA by American Machine & Foundry Company. The grab is seen picking up a large bobbin and placing it in a box. The control panel can be programmed in advance so the grab can be operated in advance. Demonstration by Mr D C Hall.

It was only in 1967 that the Tokyo Machinery Trading Co. in  Japan imports and sells the first industrial robot, a Versatran from AMF, Inc.  Britain aquires its first Industrial Robot, a Versatran, in 1967, by Douglas Hall, as seen in the video clip above.  

RISE OF THE ROBOTS by George Sullivan 1971

A second industrial robot arrived upon the scene in 1963. Manufactured by a division of AMF Thermatool, Inc., this robot is called the Versatran ( from versatile transfer ). It is characterized by a sturdy horizontal arm coupled to a six-foot vertical steel column which is mounted on a rectangular base.
Although they [Unimate] are different in appearance, the Versatran robot and the Unimate have many similarities. Both can handle objects weighing over 150 pounds. Both are built to last for forty thousand working hours. They sell for about the same price, approximately $25,000 [1971].

Industrial Robots at Work
Industrial robots do work of every imaginable type. They spray-paint automobile engines and spot-weld auto bodies. They stack brick and pluck hot parts from presses and die-casting machines.
What the robot does depends on its program. With the Versatran robot, there are two types of program controls. One is called point-to-point control and is the type used for relatively simple jobs. The other, for more complex tasks, is called continuous-path program control.
When programming a point-to-point control operation, the arm movements and functions to be performed are first drawn on a piece of paper. Then this sequence of "orders" is translated into electronic signals. Short lengths of metal-tipped wires, known as "patch cords," are inserted into the holes of a small, black pegboard, called a "patchboard," to correspond to the written orders.
The programmed patchboard locks into the robot's console panel. The board's contacts connect with memory-storing and command devices known as "potentiometers." Once the potentiometers have been adjusted for the various arm positions in the cycle, the machine is ready to operate. The robot user may own several patchboards, each programmed for a different job.
Programming the Versatran robot for "continuous path" operation is a matter of "teaching" the machine the proper motions to follow. A switch in the console is set for "program." The operator then leads the robot arm through all the motions it will later assume on its own. Gripper commands are also acted out. These signals are automatically recorded on magnetic tapes within the control console. There are fifteen minutes of program time available on each of the two reels of tape the console contains.
The Unimate is programmed in similar fashion—by moving the robot arm through the desired sequence of operation. The sequence registers in the machine's memory unit. Once the robot arm has been "taught" a program, it will follow the prescribed set of operations over and over.
"There's no mystery to programming," says one user. "It doesn't even require a mechanical background, much less a knowledge of electronics."
The job the robot is programmed to do may involve several individual tasks.

See Harry Johnson and Veljko Milenkovic related US patents US3212649, US3241020 and US3298006.

See Milenkovic tribute and mention of Versatran development here.

VERSATRAN robot in the 1971 movie "Silent Running"

The "billiard's" playing robot is actually an AMF Versatran industrial robot.

Regarding "Silent Running", for a 1972 movie, the Versatran was still considered a state-of-the-art industrial robot.

Two interchangeable end-effectors are shown, a gripper for loading/depositing billiard balls, and a pneumatic "cue" to strike the ball (below). The standard two-fingered Versatran gripper picks up a B.A.S.E.(tm) 3-fingered gripped to deposit the balls. Another small continuity error in that when picking up the B.A.S.E.(tm) gripper, the 2 pneumatic lines are not attached, but then magically appear in the next shot (see above).  Also in the above image is the AMF Versatran name/logo, as well as the controller on the left. 

The control panel in the background is a real and actual point-to-point Versatran control panel,  used to program the various movie sequences. Although portrayed as "thinking for itself" , this robot would have to be choreographed and programmed via the point-to-point controller.

See other early Industrial Robots here.