George Devol and the History of Industrial Robots

The history of industrial robots is closely tied to George Devol, whose magnetic recording technology of the 1930s emphasized the need for factory automation.

The need to have devices or things that can handle repetitive tasks dates back to ancient times when humans started looking for ways to relieve their burdens. For instance, the Greeks came up with these kinds of devices, which they called automata. The term automata refers to devices that operate like a human, whereas robot presents a general meaning.

More works have been done over the years to create industrial robots, and the most notable ones are by George Devol. Keep reading to learn more about his immense contribution to industrial automation.

What is industrial automation?

Industrial automation refers to using control systems like robots or computers and information technology to execute different manufacturing tasks in place of human workers.

The term industrial automation was first used in the automobile industry around 1946 to describe the controls and automatic devices that had been adopted for mechanized production lines. The specific word is attributed to Ford’s engineering manager, D.S. Harder. The word largely applies to the manufacturing context but also has use cases when it comes to systems that have substantial computerization, electrical, and mechanical.

Generally, you can view the usage of automation as a technology that operates based on programmed commands that issue automatic feedback to properly execute instructions. Such a system ends up running efficiently without the need for human intervention. Technology continues to develop, and its growth is intertwined with computers and computer-related developments like industrial robots.

Automated systems are continually becoming more complex and sophisticated. The systems operate at an advanced level that is beyond human abilities and can accomplish more activities.

When the concept of industrial automation initially started taking shape, the goal back then was to increase productivity. That’s because automated machines could run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Today, industrial automation has matured to the point that other technologies are developing from it.

Robotics stands out as one of the technologies resulting from industrial automation. It is a specialized branch of automation in which robots/machines operate with human-like features. For instance, the robot arm can be programmed to do things like welding and carrying products from one point to another.

About George Devol

We wouldn’t have digital manufacturing had it not been for inventors like George Devol, who put forward their best foot to set us on the right path toward improving our manufacturing processes.

George Devol is well known for his work in industrial robotics. Born in 1912, the inventor would soon start appreciating the essence of factory automation in the 1930s when he started working on magnetic recording technology. By 1954, he had filed a patent under the number U.S. Patent No. 2,988,237, which covered an autonomous machine capable of storing commands and moving parts.

The invention was by no means a surprise. From his early life in Kentucky, Devol had always fascinated his peers with unique inventions. For instance, he at one time helped power his school using an electric light plant.

Devol did not obtain a formal college education. On the contrary, he focused on getting practical knowledge, which eventually helped him start his first company which developed film sound technology.

George Devol invention

The patent that Devol obtained was focused on a programmable robotic arm going by the name Unimate. The term was a combination of two different words – universal and automation.

The invention could turn at an angle of six degrees and had storage ability for digital commands. It was the first industrial robot of its kind.

The robotic arm stood out because it could operate at high speeds and was able to perform various tasks.

The invention turned into a company under the name Unimation, Inc when Devol’s and Joseph Engelberger’s paths crossed in 1956. Engelberger’s entrepreneurial skills played a central role in marketing Unimate to manufacturers.

Unimate achieved unprecedented growth. In 1961, Unimate 1900 model was made publicly available. By 1966, the robot further increased its popularity when it appeared on television. It managed three things that helped earn the trust of potential manufacturers – opening a can of beer, knocking a golf ball into a cup, and conducting a live band.

The Ewing Township GM plant in New Jersey was the first to buy Unimation robotic arm, which was used to stack hot metal. Other automotive manufacturers began adopting the technology into their production lines.

Impact of George Devol’s invention

George Devol’s invention had a significant impact on the automotive industry. It made it possible for manufacturers to develop better production lines that improved efficiency and quality.

Other important roles that Unimate was used for included automating welding and metalwork processes.

HGR can help your production lines

HGR has a wide selection of industrial robots, tools, and more to improve your production lines. Explore our inventory 24/7 online, or visit one of our locations. See something you like? Make an offer or contact a sales rep today! We’re here to help.


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