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Robotics and Automation Report: Origins and Early Applications

Date : 2 November 2021

Researcher : Yip Wai Fong


While automation and robotics are the buzzword for Industry 4.0, it has always been one of the cornerstones for industries to take off very early on. In this first part of the Robotics and Automation report, we look into the history and its early use cases.

The concept and history

Automation is the use of machinery to perform repetitive tasks that are otherwise done by humans. Often, the tasks are labour-intensive, dull, dirty, and potentially dangerous. The need to automate started during the Industrial Revolution when factories were set up and mass labour was employed for repetitive work. The earliest cited example of automation was the Jacquard loom machine used for embossing patterns on textiles.

Robotics is the development of robots with programmed "intelligence". Early robots used magnetic programming to store movement instructions so that they could perform a larger sequence of tasks. Although the term "robot" originated in science fiction in the 1940s and was depicted as a mechanical servant/companion of humans, and thus had a form which resembled humans, real robots were developed for car manufacturing at GM Motors. These "industrial robots" had the form of a gigantic arm sitting on a base, and their range of movement was limited to a series of assembling tasks. They were powered by hydraulics at first, then by electricity.

The first industrial robots were invented in the 1950s by George Devol and began to be marketed in America by his company, Unimation in the 1960s. However, through licencing agreements with Unimation, by the 70s and 80s, Japan became a leading manufacturer of industrial robots because of its thriving car and motorcycle manufacturing industry.

The field of "robotics" has arisen, where engineers and researchers at universities such as Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Center envisioned robots to be intelligent machines that could undertake dangerous tasks in an industrial or defence setting. Robots built from Stanford’s research in the late 1960s and 1970s were such as "Shakey", a predecessor of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR), and the "Stanford Arm", an industrial robot. Victor Scheinman, creator of “Stanford Arm”, was the future inventor of the PUMA robots that would be used widely in the manufacturing industry for assembling smaller components.

Warehouse Automation and Robotics

While automation and robotics were developed for demands in manufacturing, material handlings in warehouses, which were repetitive and can be dangerous owing to the volume of material being handled, created the need for automation as well. The Automated Storage and Retrieval System, a vertical transport and storage system first used in bookstores and then libraries before being implemented in warehouses in the late 1960s, is the earliest known automation in a warehouse.

The Automated Guided Vehicle, a path-following driverless vehicle that transported big and heavy cargo around the warehouse in the 1970s, is an early use case of robotics.

The Warehouse Management System (WMS), a software to keep track of warehouse inventory had been developed in JC Penney in 1970s. Improvement in computing power in the 1990s allowed for more advanced software developments; rather than a custom-built WMS for a specific company, packaged WMSs with expanded and scalable functionalities came to the scene and set a benchmark for warehousing. It would also be enhanced a decade later by integration with new technology such as the RFID.

Similarly, logistics management began to undergo automation in the late 1980s with software such as Transport Management System (TMS). By the early 2000s, TMS was enhanced with the ability to track and trace a fleet with the use of GPS navigation.

Businesses at forefront

The above narrative of automation and robotics shows that it has been present in the supply chain since 1960s, if not since its inception. Businesses have been willing forerunners to adopt and experiment new innovations in this field in order to tackle challenges and optimize labour and resources. In the next part of the report, we will continue with the application of automation and robotics in supply chain post 2000.

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