Saturday, October 16, 2010

What Industrial Robots do the Customers Want(Part one)?

Utah/MIT Hand, I was in teaching kids as volunteer.

      Industrial Robots have the history of half a century from the time George Devol applied for the first robotics patents in 1954 (granted in 1961). It is officially defined by ISO as an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes [Wik2010].
    I was involved in robotics research in an outstanding robotics lab as PhD student and research assistant at the time of end of decade 1980. My professor Zhexiang Li from MIT had many ideas in developing arms and got half million dollar grant to do so. Based on his proposal, we have built a Direct Drive Arm with four axes in the lab. The direct drive arm uses rare-earth motors with samarium-cobalt magnets, which produce much stronger magnetic fields and hence high torques[An1988]. In this way, we limited mechanical gearing. Today, this technique is used in electric cars and hard disks in computers. The lab director, Professor Paul Wright from Carnegie-Mellon University had good ideas in sensing and CNC manufacturing, who help me a lot in the lab. Professor Jacob Schwartz is a pioneer in computing and computer language. I learnt programming skills from him and his students. there were so many smart guys in the lab. I miss them a lot. After worked three years in the lab, I thought I was well equipped to solve problems in industries.

    I walked in a window and door manufacture in New York and offer my solution to the process of loading glass to CNC cutting by applying a six axes robot. After the demo in performance of the robot, the owner of the company said: “it’s good for you. We need an inexpensive solution and just get the job done!” It would cost $70,000 for a big robot to load 72” x 84” size glass plus labor and fixture device. Later, I came back with a new solution that had developed sensor and two axes drivers. When I prepared doing pre-installation, a supervisor did manually loading glass as usual. Suddenly, the glass sheets crashed and fall down. One piece of glass cut the arm of supervisor. I closed my eyes to avoid seeing it. He was sent to hospital and out of work for two months. When he came back, his hand had no feeling because his arm nerves were cut. The doctor said that it would take three years for the nerves growing to the hand from the arm. I recognized this is something different from working in the research lab, like in frontier of battle. I was told by manage that everyone working in this place had experience of being cut. It was true. Before I finished the project, I became the one being cut. I was cut on my hand by a crashed glass and could not stop freely bleeding for a while.

I am in front of Free Fall machine.
      Two months later, the new solution (see the vedio on line) was working on line. The workers are out of this most dangers area in glass cutting. The owner of the manufacture is very happy to see its performance. It cost only one of third of the previous robot solution. Some one in the field gave a name to this solution as “Free Fall Loading”. Two years later, five machine companies copied and sold it in North America. You know who they are, that is not my point because after eighteen years of the invention, even the patents will be expired if it has ones[Pat2001]. My point is there are still 60% of window and door manufactures have not used the machines in glass loading. During this time of period, some of glass workers were seriously cut in death including one in the city I living. It is counted as 1/3 of our customers have that. I feel sorry that Smart Line Inc. has not had money to do the marketing and sales campaigns. Now it is good that we have blogs and website to nurture our customers.

     Someone said this is not robot for it has only two axes that fall out of definition of robot by ISO that states as “ three or more axes.” Here is the thing: Do we have to meet customer need? Or, do we have to meet definition of robot. As the customer said before, he needed an inexpensive machine and just got job done. It is clear that he did not want spend more money to pay fancy thing. He just wanted the job done. No more and no less. Instead of using six axes, we just used two axes and save $50,000 for our customer. In the later version, we saved more and putted additional $10,000 back into customer packet. Professor Paul Wright (UC Berkeley) and Professor Jacob Schwartz (NYU) name this kind of machines as “Smart Machine” which simplified the driver systems by applying sensors and/or computing. This concept applied in defense arm as “Smart Bomb” that has similar function as missile but it only cost 20% of missile and has more accuricy in targeting.
    (Next article we will discuss new robot developments, some cool stuffs.)

[An1988] page 33. Chae H. An, Christopher G. Atkeson, John Hollerbach, Model-based Control of a Robot Manipulator, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988.
[Wik2010] Industrial Robot, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 2010.
[Pat2000] "1-D. How long do patent rights last? Effective June 2000, every patent is guaranteed an inforce period of  at least 17 years." David Pressman, Patent It Yourself, Nolo, 2000.

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