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History Robotics

A glimpse into the histroy of robotics

The Unimate was the very first industrial robot, which revolutionized the manufacturing world. Conceived from a design for a mechanical arm patented in 1954 (granted in 1961) by American inventor George Devol, the Unimate was developed as a result of the foresight and business acumen of Joseph Engelberger - the Father of Robotics.

Forging a historic partnership, Engelberger began work with Devol to get his robotic device developed. In 1957 Engelberger convinced Norman Schafler, CEO of Condec Corp., the parent company of Consolidated Controls, a firm founded and directed by Engelberger, to finance the development of Devol’s invention.

By 1959 the first robot prototype was developed - the Unimate #001 - and Engelberger immediately set out to convince top American manufacturers in the automotive industry of its benefits. General Motors was the first to take interest, installing the Unimate #001 on its production line at its Trenton, New Jersey. This monumental event revolutionized manufacturing and marked the birth of the robotics industry.


In 1961, once his partner George Devol was awarded US Patent No. 2,988,237 for his robotic invention, Engelberger established Unimation Inc., a Condec Corp. subsidiary. Located in Danbury, Connecticut, it was the first company of its kind. By 1966 Engelberger expanded Unimation’s distribution internationally. By granting licenses to Nokia of Finland and Kawasaki Heavy Industries (now Kawasaki Robotics) of Japan to manufacture and market the Unimate, Engelberger ushered in the European and Asian robotic markets respectively.

The robotics industry has come a long way since General Motors installed the world's first robot on the production line in 1961. In the following decades many installations in the automotive industry followed and due to new technologies, growing capabilities and falling prices new fields of application were added as well.  Nowadays, (large-scale) production without the help of robots is almost unthinkable. The use of robots in production optimises efficiency as well as quality and helps to limit the workers exposure to hazardous environments. Automation is of particular strategic importance for Europe; it is through its application that manufacturing remains competitive in higher wage regions of the world.

European robotics industry

Over the past years, the European robotics industry has gradually reduced its dependence on the automotive industry and its subcontractors and has systematically opened up and expaned new fields of application for robots (e.g. rubber and plastics industry, metal and machine industry, electronics, food and beverage). 

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), in the race for automation in manufacturing, the European Union is currently one of the global frontrunners: 65 percent of countries with an above-average number of industrial robots per 10,000 employees, are located in the EU.

Following the Financial crisis of 2009, robot sales in Europe hit a new peak in 2011 with 43,800 units.  The total sales for industrial robots in Europe in 2015 reached 50,000 units (a record high). The strongest individual markets here are the three EU countries, Germany (20,000 units), Italy (6,700 units) and Spain (3,800 units).

Regarding the worldwide sales, there are five major markets representing 75% of the total sales volume in 2015: China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, the United States, and Germany. Sales volume increased from 70% in 2014. Since 2013, China is the biggest robot market in the world with a continued dynamic growth. With sales of 68,000 industrial robots, China alone surpassed the total market volume for Europe in 2015.

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