The Evolution of Manufacturing Technologies Today and What That Means for Tomorrow

Most of those reading this article will likely be familiar with most of the technologies we consider “normal” in this day and age. From high-speed internet services to handheld computers, it seems like today’s technologies are in a consistent flow of turning that today’s innovation can almost quickly become yesterday’s news. Case in point, each iteration of the iPhone comes out practically yearly, with each version promising new features, faster processing, and even better designs than the last.

Today’s Phone largely outshines the first version released in 2007, with the newest iPhone 14 hitting shelves this year promising to deliver stunning photography capabilities, processing powers, and even shock and dust-resistant casings. Yet in 2007, that first iPhone itself felt like a revolution in terms of handheld mobile device design. Even before 2007, former giant Nokia was consistently making waves with its innovations in technologies that allowed for better connectivity while integrating design and entertainment all in one.

A key aspect of how companies are able to accelerate their tech so much comes hand-in-hand with the developments in manufacturing technology as well. Without the precision and reliability offered by manufacturing robotics, developing such complicated technologies at the scale we see today is likely impossible. But technologies took time to develop to where it is now, and the journey itself can speak volumes about where we might be tomorrow.

Technology and the Humble Beginnings

The exact specifics of where industrial robotics began can be viewed from different perspectives. Some historians believe that the first iteration of something akin to industrial robotics started from Bill Taylor's "pick-and-place" robot, which he built out of a Meccano toy set in the 1930s.

But a real and identifiable start to the robotics revolution within industrial manufacturing came in the 1960s when George Devol, an American Inventory, founded Unimation through his creation of the first ever industrial capable robot known as "Unimate".

This industrial robot was a simple but powerful device that sequenced and stacked hot pieces of die-cast metal for the General Motors Company in New England. This made the creation of die-casting that allowed key car components to be manufactured in an easier and much more efficient manner. Yet even then, robotics were still looked upon with skepticism as the process and ultimate usage of them was still looked at as far in the future.

How Technologies Evolved Further

Robotics were still seen as fairly simple in the 1960s to 1970s as they were mostly utilized for repetitive and specific tasks. It was in the latter half of this decade that further innovations were developed when Victor Scheinman, then working at Stanford University, developed the "Standford Arm", which was described as a 6-axis robotic arm that allowed it to perform tasks like small-parts assembly through the usage of different sensory inputs.

Another driving force for technology then was the introduction of the semiconductor. Coming into the scene roughly the same time as some of the most basic versions of computers, you can almost track how advanced the current technologies are alongside the development of the respective semiconductors. These thin little wafers of silicone hold the potential of packing as much processing power in small packages, bringing forward new capabilities in computing and ushering forth a new wave of business and consumer electronics. This meant that manufacturing technologies then had the potential to perform more complicated tasks while maintaining their accuracy and reliability.

Automation, the Microprocessor, and the Technologies of Today

But these computers needed a way to better increase their processing power and capabilities with the technologies at the time. With the introduction of the microprocessor in 1971, computers were given the opportunity to exponentially grow its processing power through a much smaller size that can be packed in a square as small as a thumb. The manufacturing of the modern microprocessor requires specific techniques like lithography, which uses light to create microscopic designs. Naturally, the only way to execute such manufacturing techniques is to have the appropriate machinery and mechanical systems that can do these complex procedures.

This allowed modern industrial robots to take shape, starting in the 1980s and continuing on until today. FANUC Robotics, utilizing the potential of these microprocessors, developed the first "smart industrial robot" that allowed for even a wider range of tasks given the higher processing power. They partnered with General Motors in an effort to develop some of the most innovative robotic lines and software that allowed for better and more complex tasks.

Today, automation and machine learning has largely pushed innovation further for industrial robotics, ranging form arc welding to even robotic vision systems and fully automated robotic assembly systems. At this new frontier, we have innovators like Elon Musk pushing the boundaries of what was thought to be science fiction, developing newer technologies in both the consumer space and the manufacturing industry.

In fact, some of the key processes in today's most used technologies rely on the development of manufacturing and industrial robotics to achieve new innovations once thought to be science fiction. As semiconductors grew in complexity, there needed to be systems of manufacturing in place that allowed for the most intricate details to be designed on this thin-wafer chips. Robotics now plays a key role in the continued development of these semiconductors and the amount of information they can manage.

Tomorrow’s Key Takeaways for Today

It's incredibly interesting to see how what was once thought to be science fiction became ubiquitous in today's manufacturing landscape. Starting from Bryan Taylor's simple Meccano-powered crane, we have now arrived at a completely different stage in industrial robotics development, combining smarter technologies with physical processes in order to arrive and more robust innovations.

As we've come to see, some of the most intricate technologies require more and more specificity and complexity from the manufacturing process. With that being the case, manufacturing technologies are looking to be much more intelligent and versatile, with some experts theorizing that future machines will no longer require human intervention and take over majority of the manufacturing processes.

As long as we continue to find those links with technologies and our daily lives, we will continue to find ways to innovate way into the future.

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Published on 

Dec 13, 2022


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