Home » News » THE RISE AND FALL OF UNIMATION, INC. – Story of robotics innovation & triumph that changed the world!

THE RISE AND FALL OF UNIMATION, INC. – Story of robotics innovation & triumph that changed the world!

The first industrial robot was created in a small Connecticut machine shop and brought to life by a handful of ingenious, persistent young men led by patent-holder George Devol. Their efforts lead to the founding of Unimation, the first and, for years, the largest robotics company in the worldthe pioneering company whose innovations were the basis for the growth of industrial robotics worldwide. But in less than 30 years it was all over, ironically brought down by its own effective promotion, Japans adaptability, and something as mundane as the hydraulic power system. This account was condensed and edited by Leslie Ballard from George Munsons book, Pity the Pioneer: The Rise and Fall of Unimation, Inc., now being readied for publication.
In the spring of 1951 the Korean War was in full swing, and I was sure I would be drafted. I saw no point in interviewing for employment, despite my newly awarded degree in physics from the University of Connecticut. When I heard about a starting position for a physicist at Manning, Maxwell and Moore (MM&M) in Bridgeport, Conn., I figured I had nothing to lose and made an appointment. A young engineer, sporting a bowtie, by the name of Joseph Engelberger, interviewed mehe hired me on the spot. Little did I suspect that this decision sealed my fate, as our association would change manufacturing the world over. Nor could I know that with his combination of entrepreneurship, marketing, and natural affinity for promotion he would become the Father of Robotics.MM&M specialized in a variety of electronic devices. Joe had established their Aircraft Products Division. Military spending was up and we landed some lucrative subcontracts for jet engine controls. With brisk business that included the U.S. Air Force, we outgrew the company headquarters in Stratford, Conn. and in 1954 moved into our own plant in Danbury, Conn.The war wound down and so did our business. MM&M ordered Joe to liquidate the division, but instead, he began looking for a stable line of work to keep his workforce together. He bought five books on finance, sat down and read them all. In his words, I got my MBA in one weekend. 

GEORGE DEVOL, ROBOTICS GENIUS

In 1957, Joe met the creative genius George Devol. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1912, Devol circumvented formal education and, at age 20, formed United Cinephone, producing recording equipment using photocells. He developed the revolutionary barcode and patented hundreds of inventions, including digital magnetic recording.

Devol had observed mountains of scrap tooling, created by product design changes. It inspired his revolutionary ideauniversal automation; automation that would not become obsolete, but would adapt to product changes. He also patented a device that could perform repeated tasks with greater precision and endurance than the human worker, at less cost, and be retrainable for new tasks. He called it Programmed Article Transfer, and later Robot.

Devol facilitated the sale of the Aircraft Products Division to Consolidated Electric Corp. (later Condec) and I stayed on with their new company in Bethel, Conn.Consolidated Control Corp.

Engelberger the entrepreneur and Devol the inventor now began collaborating. Soon, Joe convinced Condecs CEO, Norman Schafler to finance Devols brainchild, the industrial robot. If Joseph Engelberger was the Father of Robotics, George Devol was the grandfather. Interestingly, the word robotics was coined by one of Joes fellow Columbia University alumni, Isaac Asimov. Joe received his masters in physics in 1949 and Asimov received his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1948. Joe found Asimovs books about robots inspiring. In his forward to Engelbergers book, Robots In Practice, Asimov includes his Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not

2,700 POUND BEHEMOTH

Our beginnings were modest, only six of us were assigned to the project. We knew the robot had to be anthropomorphic, but which configuration would provide the greatest flexibility for the applications we foresaw?

First, we conducted market surveys to determine the parameters, considering four basic configurations: polar, cylindrical, Cartesian, and revolute coordinates. Our decision was to proceed with a polar coordinate design, and while a 6-axis machine would have best emulated the flexibility of the human arm and wrist, the expense and complication forced us to build to a 5-degree of freedom machine, having just two rather than three wrist axes.

With the robots configuration determined we began to develop the prototype. A self-contained hydraulic supply operating at about 1,000 psi would provide sufficient power and require fewer gears, thus, less backlash, than an electric motor. However, hydraulic power technology was not advanced enough, and the demands for speed, stability and accuracy challenged every design aspect of the 2,700-pound behemoth. Our engineering design tasks included:

1. A digitally controlled system based on the binary system. (Remember, this was in 1956!)
2. A nonvolatile solid-state memory system, which didnt yet exist.
3. Shaft position optical digital encoders for high-speed performance, which also didnt exist.
4. A high-performance digital servo controller capable of dynamic control with a wide range of payloads.
5. High-performance hydraulic servo valves.
6. Self-contained electrical and hydraulic power supplies.

DYNASTAT MEMORY  

Under Devol, we developed a ferroresonant sensor, the basis for a self-styled memory system, patented as Dynastat. We also needed an optical shaft position encoder to provide the necessary position feedback to close the loop between the robot arms actual position and its command positions. By 1965 we had perfected an optical Gray code encoder we called Spirodisk.


The 1900 was the first Unimate series. Photo circa 1961.
We put together a hydraulically driven programmable arm that could pick up metal letters and spell out short phrases, and in 1961 we introduced our robot at a trade show at Chicagos Cow Palace. Nobody knew what we were displaying or why, and the hydraulic system leaked like a sieve, but we were on our way! We needed a company and product name. Universal automation contracted to Unimation and the industrial robot was born. We called it the Unimate®.

THE JAPANESE SEE THE WAY  

Engelberger and Devol now approached the Ford Motor Co. The Unimate got the attention of the VP of Production, who proclaimed that he could use thousands of them. A manufacturing engineer was assigned to do something with the specification, but he passed it on to suppliers who might be interestedFoMoCo did not have the vision to recognize the robots potential in assembling car bodies until much later.

WWII and the Korean War stimulated many new products and manufacturing technologies in the U.S., which led to a large dose of complacency. Thus, Americas successes gave way to international competition “ notably from Japan “ that was unforeseen and, eventually, unstoppable. Contrary to popular belief even now, robotics is not a Japanese-founded technology. It was exported from Versatran and Unimation in the U.S.In the early 1960s, when we began our mission to revolutionize American manufacturing, labor was abundant and competition from abroad was not yet threatening. American manufacturing knew no real competition. It wasnt until the 1970s that the rivalry of the Japanese awakened American industry to its vulnerability. As the highest paid workers in the world, Americans were competing with workers in every other nation, who were paid far less. This was not a favorable atmosphere for our product, which many viewed as frivolous.
In the mid-60s, the 2000 series Unimate was designed and built,initially produced in groups of three. This was replaced by a vastly improved machine.
Japan was fighting the perception that Made in Japan meant shoddy goods. In response, they set out to produce quality goods, heeding W. Edwards Demings Total Quality Management philosophy: Quality carries with it reduced costs and improved competitiveness. Demings fellow Americans did not grasp his philosophy until much later, to their detriment. With the pressure on, American industrial leaders had to rethink their position.While justification for the robot, both economically and socially, seemed obvious to us, we were not surprised to find resistance in the workforce, particularly in mass production industriesthe social threat was seen as devastating. But economic justification was far from obvious for even the most forward thinking accountants. We had our work cut out for us.

HUMAN RESOURCE IMPLICATIONS OF THE ROBOTICS REVOLUTION  

Interestingly, a 1983 study of human resource implications of robotics concluded, The most remarkable thing about job displacement and job creation impacts of robots is the skill-twist [sic] that emerges so clearly when the jobs eliminated are compared to the jobs created. The jobs eliminated are semiskilled or unskilled, while the jobs created require significant technical background. We submit this is the true meaning of the robotics revolution. It appears that we were prophetic, as this study revealed what we had earnestly stated since the mid-60s.

DIECASTING “ THE 1ST KILLER APP

In 1961 we got our opportunity to put our innovation to the test at G.M.s diecasting plant in Trenton, NJ. In wild anticipation, we readied Serial Number 001 for shipment. Naturally, we were concerned about how the diecast machine operators would react to this man replacement. In fact, their consensus was that our machine was a curiosity destined to fail. However, until the application of the robot to spot welding automobile bodies came along in the late 1960s, no other industry encouraged the proliferation of the industrial robot like diecasting. It inherently required all of the attributes the robot had to offer. Eventually some 450 Unimate robots were employed in diecasting.

In 1962, Pullman Inc., of railroad car fame, became a silent partner in Unimation, investing $3M to buy the high-tech element they desired for their corporate structure. The Pullman people, from the top down, were good people and it was a pleasure to be associated with them, but in the mid-70s new management lost interest. Condec bought Pullmans 51% interest in the company and remained sole owner until Unimation went public in 1981.

INTERNATIONAL PARTNERS

In our efforts to broaden our customer base it was natural that we should strike out internationally. Since our cash flow was entirely negative, we needed a partner. We chose the largest manufacturing business in the world Guest, Keen & Nettlefold in Wales. GKN was enthusiastic and committed. We offered strong support, educating their engineers in robot lore and guiding the sales force. But during my 1966 visit I observed that every plant had old machines and old methods. Good applications were few and far between, so the relationship was dissolved. Joe then set up Unimation Ltd. in Telford, England, which led to considerable business throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Then, in 1966 he licensed Finlands Nokia, Ab. to market robots in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

 

KAWASAKI LICENSES THE UNIMATE

While Unimation was establishing the robots credentials, Japan was enjoying economic prosperity, but anticipating a labor shortage. Thus, in 1967 Joe was invited to give a lecture in Tokyo to a large group of engineers. This interaction culminated in a 1969 licensing agreement with Kawasaki Heavy Industries to manufacture and market Unimate robots for the Asian market a good marriage that endured and prospered for 15 years. By 1983 they had shipped over 2,400 Japanmade Kawasaki Unimate robots.


Unimation President, Joe Engelberger in his trademark bowtie, development engineer George Munson, and Unimation chief engineer Maurice Dunne prep Unimate serial #001 for shipment to the first installation; GMs diecasting plant in Trenton, NJ. Unimate #001 is now on display at the Ford Museum at Greenfield Village in Michigan. Photo taken in 1961.
Joe wrote to several manufacturers suggesting that they might want to look closely at their technology and our patents. As a result, ASEA, Cincinnati Milacron, and IBM became licensees from which we derived royalties on their robot sales. As George Devol had learned long ago, ownership of patents is a valuable asset, from which we benefited handsomely. They protected our intellectual properties and helped us develop a strong licensing position that lasted years. It was a gratifying position, but they were eroding our market share and making our technology obsolete

GM REVOLUTIONIZES AUTO MAKING

The automotive industry was the engine that drove the American economy, so we concentrated our energies there. Until the end of the 1960s, the auto body assembly line was a moving conveyor on which major body subassemblies were hung. Our nemesis was that it used a level of skill and intelligence the robot didnt have. Yet we knew that the big payoff was in applying the robot to the body assembly lines. This required a product designed for both automation and indexed conveyors. These measures would open up many other applications, yielding a superior product while reducing cost. We now needed a champion at a high corporate level with insight, foresight, and guts. GMs plant manager Les Richards had all three.

GM had rebuilt its plant in Lordstown, Ohio in 1969, making it the most automated automotive plant in the world, building 110 cars per hour, twice the rate of any plant then in existence. Lordstown was to be the answer to Japans onslaught. It was to produce a high-quality small car that would satisfy the American public at a competitive cost, putting GM back on top.

The technological impact of the Lordstown experiment revolutionized automobile making and secured the robots place. It wasnt long before other companies turned to robotics and indexing systems for a more disciplined approach to manufacturing. At the same time, the European market came alive with Unimates at Fiat, Volvo, Mercedes Benz, British Leyland, BMW. Their unions welcomed robots performing all of the dangerous jobs.;


The three models of the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly or PUMA family are shown here, the 260, 600 and 750. The small 6-axIs 260 (similar to the Stamford Arm); the human-sized 5- or 6-axIs 550 and the larger 6-axIs machine.
The activity in the auto industry created many nonautomotive employment opportunities, as diverse industries sought to improve their position through the application of technology: Bendix, Pratt & Whitney, Dupont, Whirlpool, GE, and many others. For some time our only competitor was Cincinnati Milacron of Ohio. This changed radically in the late 1970s when Japanese conglomerates began producing industrial robots.

UNIMATE FAMILY EVOLVED

Our robot family grew with each new applications demands. The original 1900 Series developed into other series with extended reach; increased repeatability and lift capacity; 6-degrees of freedom; stronger wrists; Univision. New technical innovations were incorporated: solid-state memory; microprocessors; high performance electric motors replaced hydraulic and pneumatic ones; transistor controls; new programming languages.

Lordstown spot welding: The technological impact of the Lordstown experiment revolutionized automobile making and secured the robots place in manufacturing. The plant built 110 cars per hour, twice the rate of any plant then in existence. 1969.

In 1977, Joe shrewdly bought Victor Scheinmans company, Vicarm, and renamed it Unimation West. We further developed Scheinmans robot into the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA). We also acquired his VAL language, which was cutting edge.Unimation also attempted to augment its line of machines by entering into marketing license agreements with other manufacturers, such as Trallfa of Norway and Electrolux of Sweden, but all were only mildly successful. The bottom line was that we were not very good at marketing someone elses product.

ELECTRIC DRIVE ROBOTS

What happened next marked the beginning of the end. Joes innate business sense failed him, and his rigidity skewed his judgment in a critical decision. In 1981, the 9000 with VAL was Unimations answer to all the competitors who were seriously eroding its customer base. But it could not overcome one great


December 1982. Isaac Asimov; Bernard Sallott, Director of Society of Manufacturing Engineers; and George Munson, Unimation V.P. of Systems at the SME annual awards.
deficiencyhydraulics. The auto industry wanted electric- driven robots. Joe balked at this, convinced that the muscular robots required had to be hydraulically driven. He met with GMs CEO to argue his position, but lost. The partnership that was struck in 1961 virtually ended at that meeting. To rub salt in the wound, GM then announ-ced its partnership with Fujitsu/Fanuc to market Fanucs line of electric robots.By 1981 Unimation was carrying long-term debt of $19M, owed to Condec for development of the robot. Schafler, pressured to generate more cash, restructured the company. Paul Allegretto, a Condec executive, was made Executive VP and I was named VP and General Manager of the newly created Systems Division.Allegretto took the company public to pay off Condec and Joe had no choice but to go along. The proceeds paid all indebtedness and the remaining $6M provided working capital for Unimationnot much for a pioneer whose technology was becoming obsolete, and with significant competition.With the success of taking the company public, Allegretto told Joe that if he werent made CEO he would quit. Joe accepted Allegrettos offer to quit and then reassumed the reins.
But things did not go well for the company. Sales dropped as the competition gained momentum. GM was leading the charge for electric-driven robots, which Unimation still did not have. Joes previous confrontation over hydraulics with GMs CEO didnt help, and between Cincinnati Milacron, Asea, and GMF Robotics, Unimations position was seriously undermined.Yet Unimation had a number of suitors, all with a desire to gain a foothold in robotics. In December 1982 Westinghouse paid $107M, buying its way to the top of the domestic robot industry. The merger of the two companies moved rapidly. Almost immediately, Unimations fortunes plummeted and its market share eroded. The general economic recession caused a drop in sales, but industry competition contributed greatly to Unimations financial downward trend. The largest segment of our business, auto manufacturing, was shifting to electric-driven robots.
Those of us who grew up with the entrepreneurial spirit of Unimation could not readily adjust to the ponderous ways of giant Westinghouse. I was the first to go among the executives. In July 1983 I became SVP of Robot Systems Inc. in Georgia. Joe continued as president of Unimation, though his was an association of oil and water. Unimation West eventually broke away; Kawasaki and Unimation Europe ground to a halt under the new management.Finally, in 1984 Joe threw in the towel, saying, I resigned in dismay. I was heartbroken because this was my baby, and it was crumbling before my eyes. In 1985 he founded Transition Research Corp., which later became HelpMate Robotics.In March 1985 I returned to Unimation as Manager of Distributor Sales. As I became familiar with the new Danbury operation, I felt that it was only a matter of time before Unimation would be absorbed into Westinghouses Pittsburgh operation. Sure enough, my duties were suspended as operations in Danbury wound down.

UNIMATE STARS ON THE TONIGHT SHOW

In those early years we took on any challenge that would earn us some attention, including trade shows and TV appearances. The Unimate was even invited to appear live on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carsonthats how much of a novelty we were. Joe and I took our 2,700-pound baby to the NBC studios in Burbank for two weeks of rehearsal. We decided to perform three acts: putt a golf ball, take Ed McMahons place in a beer commercial, and conduct the band and play Milton DeLuggs accordion. Simple enough, eh? For the putting act, all we had to do was hit the ball consistently from a known distance on a relatively flat surface. But there was one variable: the hydraulic power supply operated on the principal of charging an accumulator from a positive displacement pump, controlled by an unloading valve that cycled between 950 and 1000 psi, so the speed of the robots motions varied, depending upon the pressure level. So, in addition to a fine job of programming and a prayer that the cycling of the unloading valve would be consistent, we couldnt miss. We were the first act that night. But not 30 seconds before going live on-air, a stagehand inadvertently kicked the ball off the mark. I spotted it and was about to replace it, but realizing the opportunity for a save, I handed it to Joe on stage, who repositioned it with dramatic flair. To Johnnys relief, and the delight of the audience the Unimate took its putter in hand, approached the ball and tapped it into the cup. Next, the Unimate was to open and pour a beer. The pneumatically operated fingers of the robots hand were either open or closed without any tactile sensing or cushioningnot only was this a very good way to crush a can but also to burst it in a spray of beer. To control this, we adjusted the air pressure and stroke of the fingers to treat the can more kindly. But even with reduced pressure, the violence with which it grabbed was still enough to rile up the effervescent contents and send them spewing into the air. We finally discovered that if we nearly froze the beer we could pull the stunt off without soaking everyone. Of course, not wishing to be wasteful, the process of discovery required us to consume the opened beer during our investigations. Well, thats show biz. Finally, Joe was to program the machine to lead the band, after which it was to drop the baton, reach for Miltons accordion and pretend to play it. All went well with the band picking up the beat in time. Suddenly, the Unimate dropped the baton, lunged for the accordion and, rather than playing it, proceeded to thrash it about mercilessly! The audience loved it. Milton was astounded. Johnny, of course, thought it was great fun.

 

Westinghouses disclosure that it was setting up a joint venture with Matsushita Electric seemed the final move in a series of strategic shifts since the merger that were essential to improving competitiveness in the factory automation market. Time would tell otherwise. Before shutting the doors at Shelter Rock Lanewhere it all started back in 1954and moving what little remained of Unimation to Pittsburgh, those eligible for early retirement were so advised by Westinghouse. I was one of them. In 1988 Westinghouse sold Unimation to Stäubli of France.
In 2003 the Unimate was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame.
In 2003 I was honored with the Robotics Industries Associations Joseph F. Engelberger Award.
Please CLICK HERE for a gallery of photos on the history of Unimations robots and a link to the Johnny Carson show video. Photos and video courtesy of George Munson. the editors
 

Words by George Munson