Not many people can be said to have truly shaped the course of global manufacturing. They include Henry Ford, W. Edwards Deming and Taiichi Ohno. We lost another last month.
Joseph F. Engelberger, the father of the modern robotics industry, died Dec. 1, 2015, in Newtown, CT. He was 90.
An electrical engineer and entrepreneur, Engelberger was founder and president of Unimation Inc., the world’s first manufacturer of industrial robots. Engelberger launched Unimation in 1956 and grew it into a company with more than 1,000 employees. (The company was eventually acquired by Stäubli in 1988.)
Engelberger worked closely with inventor George Devol, licensing his patents and developing the first industrial robot in the United States under the brand name “Unimate.” While Devol invented and patented the robotic arm, it was Engleberger who saw its potential. He saw the robot not as a replacement for human workers, but as a liberating technology—a machine that could spare people from “dirty, dull and dangerous” tasks.
The first Unimate robot was installed at a GM factory in Ewing Township, NJ, in 1961 to lift hot pieces of metal from a die-casting machine. Soon, Chrysler, Ford, Fiat and other manufacturers would also be employing Unimate robots at their factories for machine tending, spot welding and other applications.
The rest is history. Today, there are more than a dozen robot OEMs and countless more suppliers of grippers, tool changers and other peripherals. More than 3 million industrial robots are in service worldwide.
Engelberger was more than just an inventor—he was also a tireless advocate for robotics. He testified before congressional committees, authored books, published articles, and gave media interviews to advance the cause of scientific research and encourage application of robotics in industry, space exploration, and daily life. Engelberger and his Unimate robot even appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1966. Engelberger demonstrated the robot’s dexterity by sinking a golf putt, pouring a beer, and directing the band.
Engelberger also played a key role in founding the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). “Joe’s personal drive and commitment made RIA a reality, and his pioneering talents convinced his competitors that RIA was needed for the future of manufacturing,” said Don Vincent, past RIA president. “Joe was our Henry Ford for the robotics business and a tremendous international ambassador.”
Originally focused on industrial applications, Engelberger later explored the application of robotics in human services, founding HelpMate Robotics Inc. in 1984. There, he was instrumental in developing a robotic courier, the HelpMate, which is still being used in hospitals today.
If you’ve got a robot at your assembly plant—or even if you’re only thinking about installing one—take a moment and offer a silent “Thanks, Joe.” He’s earned it.