The Global Robotics Industry

In the early 1960s the United States was virtually without competition in robot research and production and led Japan, Soviet Union and Europe by several years. One of the first industrial robots, the Unimate, was manufactured in the United States in 1961 by Unimation, based on a patent filed in 1954. The Unimate, also called a programmable transfer machine, was designed for material handling. It utilized hydraulic actuators and was programmed in joint coordinates during teaching by a human operator. The angles of the various joints were stored and played back in operation mode. An all electric, six axis articulated arm designed for tracking arbitrary paths in three dimensional space, increased the applicability of robots to more sophisticated applications such as welding and assembly.

Unimation acquired and further developed the Stanford Arm with support from General Motors, and later commercialized it as the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA) model. The Japanese robot industry was jump started in 1967 when the Tokyo Machinery Trading Company began importing the Versatran robot from AMF Corporation. Kawasaki Heavy Industries entered a license technology agreement with Unimation in 1968 and began to produce robots in Japan in 1969.

The robot boom, which automated manufacturing on a large scale during the 1980s, the Japanese industrial robot industry, grew at a faster pace than anyone had estimated. From 1978 to 1990 JICA (Japanese Industrial Robot Association) repeatedly corrected its forecast by +80% and more. Japan used a broader definition for industrial manipulator than the Europe and USA. The International Federation of Robotics estimates that the worldwide operational industrial robots stock had reached almost one million in 2007.

JIRA attributes this success to three characteristic of industrial robots:
• Industrial robots are programmable automation devices.
• Industrial robots exceed the physical and mechanical abilities of humans.
• Industrial robots perform with high fidelity and accuracy.

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