E D U B O T S
SHAPING THE FUTURE OF ROBOTICS
Robotics Pioneer, by Leslie Ballard
Victor Scheinman is a pioneer in the field of robotics. In 1969, while he was a mechanical engineering student working in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), he invented the Stanford Arm, the first all-electric, 6-axis articulated robot, which was controlled by a revolutionary minicomputer. Also called the Scheinman Arm, it allowed more sophisticated control for assembly and automation. Its kinematic design allowed motions beyond the existing limited linear transfers from one point to another. It is still referred to as the “standard arm.” In 1973, Scheinman founded Vicarm, Inc. to manufacture his robotic arms, which by then included his MIT Arm. In 1977, he sold the Stanford Arm design to the world’s first and largest robotic company, Unimation, and became General Manager of Unimation’s West Coast division. With support from General Motors, this arm evolved into the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA), becoming the standard in industrial applications. Other successful ventures followed. Scheinman continued as a consultant and as a visiting professor at Stanford University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering until recently with his retirement.
Victor Scheinman’s innovations and achievements are world renowned and well documented. We spoke with him recently, and he shared some little-known insights about his career. Here are some highlights of that conversation.
When I received my Bachelors in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT in 1963, I was only twenty, and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My faculty advisor at MIT, Holt Ashley, actually guided me. He was a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. He said, “You know what I want you to do? I want you to go work for Boeing for a while, and then go to Stanford. Just trust me. Just do that.” So he wrote a letter of recommendation and gave it to the right people at Boeing, and that’s what I did. I spent about four months at Boeing, just going from group to group, working on projects that were interesting to me. I worked on a lunar gravity simulator, which is a giant elevator, and did some analysis and studies on that. I got familiar with programming analog computers, where the programs were essentially done by adding resisters and capacitors in chains, essentially to process or to do computations, analog. I worked on missile-carrying submarines. The group that I was in was advanced ballistic missile systems, and I worked on some rockets. I learned a lot and I saw what aerospace was like. And because of that, I decided I wanted to take a trip.
So, I put on my backpack and started out around the world, visiting MIT alumni in various countries. I ended up going to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaya. I essentially spent most of the year doing that, visiting alumni in various places, seeing what they were doing in their countries, and getting an appreciation for the breadth and width of engineering around the world. After a year, while I was in India, I realized I’d better come back to the United States and get into grad school. I had been previously admitted to Stanford, but I had asked for a deferment for a year.
On that trip around the world I decided I really wanted to go into mechanical engineering, where I could do projects that would make more of a difference. I always felt that in aerospace you’re one small tooth in the giant gears of industry. I started grad school at Stanford in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department when I was 21, and realized that I had a lot of the coursework already. I was really interested in taking more courses in mechanical engineering, so I switched departments. I got my Master’s in one year at Stanford, but I stayed on and started working on the engineering degree. I got a research assistantship, working in the artificial intelligence lab, the AI Lab, at Stanford. I worked with the group that was experimenting with hands and arms for the computer. And that’s when my work started to transition into robotics at Stanford.
The AI Lab had a mechanical arm called the Rancho arm, which they had bought from Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, California. It was an electric prosthetic arm that had been converted. It had all sorts of problems, and it wasn’t very accurate. You could move it around, but as far as doing tasks of manipulation, it was very difficult to use, even with the computer. We learned about the importance of simplifying the arm solution, the computations required to deal with this arm, which didn’t have orthogonal axes. Also, the kinematics configuration was not ideal for computer control, especially in those days when the math was not as well developed as it is now, and the computation speed was slower. And so I got involved in working on some new robot designs.
In 1969, a computer took up an entire room. At Stanford, it was located in a 10’ x 10’ chamber. Students would enter the room and insert a program card. Each student had about ten minutes. The computer had to be elevated above the floor to circulate air to keep it cool. Whenever we ran our arm tests, the whole building would shake, so we always had to work between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning. It was not a reliable research tool, to say the least. And the arm was hydraulic. It leaked hydraulic fluid all over and made a mess. It just wasn’t compatible with that computer room.
So, we needed a dedicated computer. I built work surfaces out of Styrofoam to cushion the vibration and minimize damage. Two years of work and research on that project lead to the next iteration: the electric arm. There would be no messy hydraulic fluid leaks and it would be small enough to run on a desktop. I became the lead on that project and wrote my thesis on it. It was called the Stanford Arm.
After graduating [in 1973], I started Vicarm (short for Victor Arm) and started manufacturing arms. I still consider myself to be an engineer, not a businessman. I’ve never patented any of the arms. I want people to be able to use them and do further research on them.
Once I got my little microcontroller running, I had this little box. I was able to take it places. I could take the whole robot arm with me. I could even carry it on board a plane because it only weighed 15 pounds. With the controller and everything, it weighed maybe 25 pounds. I took it to Joe Engelberger in Danbury, Connecticut [president of robotics company, Unimation], and I plopped it down right on his desk. This was in the ‘70s. I programmed it up and had it running, doing real-time, straight-line motion and all these things that he could only dream about with his big hydraulic robots. It was so small compared to his [two-ton] Unimate. He’d never seen anything like it. No one had. He must have thought it was a toy.
I got a lot out of summer job experience. I worked on the Apollo program, which was the moon mission. I spent two summers working on that, one when I was at Stanford. Again, in the summers, I was back in aero/astro, working on the Apollo program and building the Saturn rocket, and also the lunar lander. I spent one summer in the theoretical aero thermal dynamics group, developing the heat shield on the Apollo reentry module. And another in the Saturn rocket group, where I worked on turbo pumps for powering the rocket engines. Both were very interesting jobs, and I really got a sense of what the whole process is—not just the engineering, but the making of the system, in other words, fabrication. On lunch hours, I’d spend my time wandering through the factories, the manufacturing areas, and just talking with the people and learning.
If I have any advice for success, it’s “Follow your heart.” You really have to immerse yourself in your venture—it’s more than just getting a bright idea. You have to seek clear solutions. I’ve learned that the [business] world is market driven, not technology driven. I was lucky to have the “Silicon Valley experience” before Silicon Valley existed as it is today. Many qualified people gave me guidance.