British robots in 1980

In a very interesting 1980 New Scientist magazine article, Peter Marsh reported that in 1966, two big engineering firms, GKN and Hawker Siddeley, had signed agreements with American companies to sell what were the world’s first examples of industrial robots. Sadly, at that time, not enough British factories wanted to buy their products. However, the formation of the British Robot Association in 1978, helped to bring the devices to industrialists attention once again. In 1980, at a time of economic gloom, many companies were looking at robots as a way to cut labour costs.

New Scientist, 24th April 1980

Britain grapples with robots

by Peter Marsh

“In 1966, when England’s footballers won the World Cup, Britain’s engineers had the chance to put the country on the map in robots. The engineers failed then – can they do better today?”

Second generation PUMA (Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly) robots made by the American company Unimation, were about to go into production at a new factory in Telford, Shropshire. Companies reportedly interested were: Lesney, for making toy cars; British Leyland, for making small parts for cars; Rowntree Mackintosh, to see if the robots could fill chocolate boxes; and GEC, to see if PUMAs could assemble printed circuit boards. Fast forward to the present day, 2016, and I can’t help thinking this sounds like the industrial revolution!

Unimate, the first industrial robot, was patented by the American inventor George Devol (1912-2011). His patent for the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm represented the foundation of the modern robotics industry. The new word Unimation was suggested by Devol’s wife Evelyn by combining Universal and Automation.

Devol was part of the team that developed the first commercial use of microwave oven technology, the Speedy Weeny, which automatically cooked and dispensed hotdogs in places such as Grand Central Station, New York.

As always, when looking into these old magazine stories, I have diversed rather drastically. Coming back from Speedy Weenys to British robots, here are a few facts presented in the 1980 article:

  • There were about 8,000 robots in the world: 3,000 in Japan, 2,000 in the US and the rest in Europe. Britain’s share was 150.
  • The PUMA robot would set you back about £20,000. (According to one online historic inflation calculator, that is equivalent to just over £90,500 today. New Scientist cost 40p back then.)
  • British Leyland had 28 welding robots on its new Metro production line in Birmingham. Ford had a similar number on a production line at Halewood for its new Erika model (the name was actually dropped in favour of making the car a third generation Escort). Both production lines were due to start up later that year.
  • The remainder of the UK’s robots were either painting things or welding.
  • One engineer in the magazine was quoted as saying that “one of the biggest problems with automation in this country is not the workers: it’s middle management. They’re scared stiff of automation. It means they they’ve got to adapt to new ideas. I’m afraid that if my company doesn’t invest in more automated equipment, we’ll be out of business in five or ten years.” It would be interesting to know now what company that was, they didn’t say in the article.

Not everything about robotic manufacturing was considered to be wonderful in the magazine article. For example, Geoff Belbin, head of engineering research at ICI’s plastics division had studied how his firm could benefit from robots. “I don’t want to over-emphasise the usefulness of robots,” said Belbin. “They can be useful but they’re not going to revolutionise an old operation.” When he considered a robot for a project, Belbin looked at the problem in this way: “If you can imagine a one-armed cretin doing the job, with his feet tied to the floor and wearing boxing gloves, then this is a job that can be done by a robot.”

Hopefully things are rather different in the factories of 2016.


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