When the first industrial robot, Unimate, appeared on a General Motors assembly in 1961, it was a modern marvel. The job it performed, transporting die-castings and welding them onto car bodies was not only onerous, but dangerous to human workers, who faced both the risk of injury and being exposed to toxic fumes.
Over the last 50 years, robotic machinery has been vastly improved. Due to more sensitive motors and actuators, they’ve become incredibly precise, which enables them to work with small components, often with far more accuracy than a human can achieve. That’s what’s has allowed robots to move from making Buicks to smartphones.
Yet the future lies not in greater precision and accuracy, but the ability for robots to collaborate effectively with humans. Rethink Robotics is one of the companies at the forefront of this revolution, so I spent some talking to Jim Lawton, the company’s Chief Product and Marketing Officer, to learn more about what we can expect the future of robotics to look like.
From Work-In-Progress To Just-In-Time
For a long time, manufacturing facilities set up to produce in large batches. Once a product was engineered and designed, factories would churn out thousands of identical items without stopping. This was an effective way to produce goods cheaply, but it also resulted in a huge amount of work-in-progress inventory.