Symposium indicates US is still very much in robot race

Like an amusement park, the impression is one of machines in constant motion. Everywhere you look, giant mechanical ''arms'' with movable shoulders, elbows, and wrists are performing a mix of tasks from lifting and stacking engine blocks and assembling small motors to spray painting metal parts and spot welding car doors.

Every robot worth its metal is here.

It is the 13th International Symposium on Industrial Robots, the largest ever assembled. Though the mix of speakers and exhibiters is clearly international, the Chicago-based event and the predominance of American robots on the exhibition floor underscore the fact that the United States, though behind, is not about to be left out of the robotics race.

And lest any potential American purchaser forget that ''buying American'' can help, one orange robot made by Prab Robots Inc. of Michigan is topped by a subtle reminder: two miniature American flags.

The Japanese are clearly ahead both in using and manufacturing robots. Their factories are home to some 60 percent of the estimated global working robot population of 25,000-30,000 machines. US companies, by contrast, have employed only about one-third of the global output. As a manufacturer, Japan openly aims to snare 25 percent of the US robot market by 1990.

But the US could yet bounce back as a strong competitor, according to experts here.

Much depends, of course, on the strength of the long-awaited economic recovery and a pickup in capital spending. It also depends on whether or not this country quickly acquires the necessary skilled manpower to install and maintain the robots.

And many US robot manufacturers insist that Washington must help them with investment tax credits and low-interest loans, just as Japan has helped its robotics manufacturers.

''We have to realize that we're an industrial nation without an industrial policy,'' insists Stanley Polcyn, senior vice-president of Unimation Inc., the leading US company, with 15 percent of the world market.

But US experts say they see several promising signs. Congress is currently considering legislation that could help in a variety of ways. Michael Radeke, vice-president of the robot division of Cincinnati Milacron Inc., the nation's second largest robot producer, with 3 percent of the world market, notes that some 40 universities and technical colleges have recently launched major programs in robotics technology.

Also encouraging: Just within the last year or so, such established firms as General Electric, General Motors, Bendix Corporation, and IBM have entered the robot manufacturing race. Current estimates of the expected US share of the 1990 to a bullish $3 billion.

Everyone agrees the robot's potential for modernizing manufacturing is largely untapped. Most US robots work in automotive plants. Walter Weisel, president of the Robot Institute of America (RIA) and President of Michigan's Prab, says that a ''dramatic'' shift is currently under way, with more robots being used in the machine tool industry for loading and unloading chores.

Though he says he is not sure that the US will be using 100,000 robots by 1990, as some experts have predicted, he says he thinks robots could be profitably used for such varied jobs as die casting, forging, and glass handling.

One problem, says Mr. Weisel, has been the American buyer's tendency to shop for a sophisticated machine that does everything and to buy several, rather than select one machine equipped to perform the task at hand as most Japanese shoppers do.

The American attitude, he says, is a sort of risk-oriented ''cover up,'' based on the theory that the machine can be used for something else if it doesn't work well or if another job is more needed. Weisel says that buying robots in quantity for undetermined broad tasks amounts to a ''cop out'' on homework that should precede any purchase.

Another US problem, according to the experts, has been a tendency to build robots as replacements for people and their tasks, rather than to model the robots after existing machinery in order to replace that machinery.

''It's very difficult to apply mechanical systems to products that were designed to be made by people,'' notes Thomas Blunt, RIA vice-president and manager of General Electric's technology division.

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