Robots can positively change the world of work – even in small businesses. This introductory article clarifies which types of robots there are and what they can be used for. One type of robot, in particular, is surprising.
When people talk about modern work today, one often hears the terms digitization and artificial intelligence. Still, almost as often, they talk about robots that will change the world of work. But what is a robot? Why is it called that, and when did it become built as a robot for the first time? And above all: What types of robots are there and what can they be used for? If you are toying with using a robot, you should know what kind of machine you are dealing with.
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What Are Robots?
The answer to this question is not that easy because there is no uniform definition. We have come across the term robot quite often recently: lawn mower robots, vacuum cleaner robots, toy robots, social robots for pensioners, or a robot dog. The short form ‘bot’ can be found in so-called chatbots or the Google bots that scour websites in the computer world. The camera drone or autonomous driving is also sorted here again and again. And then, of course, there are the industrial robots, which are mainly known from the automotive industry. What they all have in common is that they do something automatically.
So is every automatic machine a robot? No. A device is first and foremost a powered (motorized) tool that humans control. A drill as well as an automobile or a coffee machine.
An automat is a machine that can perform a specific task automatically, but only this one. So the coffee machine can brew coffee by itself, but nothing else. And a CNC milling machine can be programmed, but in the end, it can only mill. If this particular process is no longer required, an automat is useless.
On the other hand, a robot can be programmed and converted and can therefore be used for a large number of tasks. The specialty of a robot is its flexibility. Where a machine can only repeat the predefined work process, a robot can be reprogrammed so that it grips or assembles, advertisement.
The History of Human-Like Robots
What Was The First Robot, and Who Invented it?
People have always invented things that make their work easier. And the desire, on the other hand, for a mechanical helper who tirelessly takes on complex and tedious tasks is probably as old as humanity itself. Even Aristotle thought of automatically working machines with the ancient Greeks. But it would be a good 2,000 years before the world was ready. From a purely mechanical point of view, inventors were prepared to build sophisticated automatons as early as the late Middle Ages. But it was only the transistor technology invented in the 1940s that laid the foundation for it to program it.
When we think of the articulated arm robots that are typical today, we cannot ignore George Devol and Joseph Engelberger. With Unimate, these two developed and built the first robot that electronics could program. As early as 1954, inventor George Devol applied for a patent for a programmable arm. However, he initially lacked funding to implement the ambitious project. In 1956 he met the investor, entrepreneur, physicist, and engineer Joseph Engelberger at a cocktail party. He was a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories and was immediately ready to join the project. Engelberger took part so much enthusiasm for his work that today he is considered the father of modern robotics.
What Are So-Called cobots?
Robots are usually made of metal and, thanks to the electric motors used, are also powerful. They can move very quickly under certain circumstances. Therefore, there is, of course, a considerable risk of injury if a human gets in the way of a robot during operation, which is why most classic robots operated behind a protective fence. But there is another way.
With these devices, a new type of robot was founded: the cobots. The name is made up of the English terms Collaborative Robot, i.e., robots for human-machine collaboration. To achieve the necessary security, the manufacturers of cobots use different methods, sometimes in combination. They measure the forces that their motors generate and compare them with the planned path. Some have force-torque sensors in some or all of the joints. Some use an air-filled sensor skin, others use capacitive sensors (like a touch display). They all have in common that as soon as they encounter an obstacle or a person, they stop.
To further reduce the risk of injury, the edges of the cobots are rounded, and they travel at reduced speeds and forces. As a result, they sometimes seem a bit sluggish, which is why many models can work much faster in the absence of people (ensured by a fence or sensor monitoring).
Lightweight robots and cobots are certainly the most sensible solution to be used in small businesses, laboratories, or in trade. In addition to the low price, it is above all the ease of use and programming that makes cobots so attractive.
What Robots Can & Cannot do, The Areas of Application
Of course, some jobs would not be possible without intelligent mobile robots. Especially in extreme environments such as deep-sea research or space travel, researchers rely on the support of robots. Technically demanding tasks are also not an issue for autonomous systems.
Then there are the uses in industrial mass production. Here, the six-axis, Scara, or Delta systems are primarily responsible for efficiency; they are supposed to weld, paint, load machines, and process workpieces. Fast and around the clock.
But what about small businesses and craftsmen? Artisans, in particular, are often proud to do their work themselves, with their own hands. It shows their ingenuity, their craftsmanship. That is a good thing, yet there is one or the other task that justifies using an industrial robot or cobot. Of course, even systems equipped with AI and machine learning cannot replace the experience and creativity of a master craftsman or skilled worker. Artificial intelligence is far from being that good. But jobs that are stupidly repetitive, physically difficult, or dirty and dusty, robots can do very well. And let’s be honest: there is work like this everywhere. If you’ve never thought about a steel or aluminum colleague before, maybe you should. It could change your work life. Positive.