Page 6-Saturday, May 9, 1981-The Michigan Daily
The robot revolution:
By JOHN ADAM
N AN EAST Engineering lab there is an ordinary
piece of machinery. Sitting motionless, it doesn't look.
like much to the untrained eye until Assistant Prof.
George Lee types on a nearby terminal to activate
the computer program.
Then the machinery comes to life. An arm swings
and the gripper hovers over the first aluminum block.
Clamp! The arm lifts the block, turns 90 degrees, and
delicately places the block down vertically. It then
proceeds to stack the remaining blocks and cylinders
in a pyramid as a small child might.
"LOOK AT THIS NOW," Lee says like a proud
father. In a series of complicated axal maneuvers,
the robot smoothly places the last block on top to
crown the pyramid.
Remarkable. The University's $45,000 PUMA
robot (an acronym for Programmable Universal
Machine for Assembly) doesn't look like "C3Po" or
R2D2" or any of the other robots known and loved by
sci-fi fans. But this machine is one of the most
sophisticated robots commercially available and its
purchase could be the beginning of a drive to make
the University a major resource center for robotics.
The robotics industry could be one of the fastest-
growing industries of the future and both Gov.
William Milliken and Mayor Louis Belcher have high
hopes that Ann Arbor will become a world leader in
THERE IS A DEFINITE NEED to diversify
Michigan's economy, state leaders say, and Ann Ar-
bor, with its close relationship to the University and
its proximity to General Motors - which will become
a large producer and consumer of robots - is fertile
ground for the booming industry.
Already companies with attractive potential have
begun to settle in the area. Devilbiss, a firm that
produces spray painting robots, recently located in
Ann Arbor. City and state leaders say they plan to do
everything in their power to woo other high tech in-
dustries to the area.
The University is already doing its part. Inside the
University's various engineering departments there
is a certain "electricity in the air." Professors' file
cabinets are filled with literature on robotics; a
"robotics society" meets each month to discuss
various problems and advances within the different
THE MECHANICAL ENGINEERING and Applied
Mechanics (ME/AM) department is primarily in-
terested in studying structural design to improve the
robot's accuracy. And students and faculty members
are now in the process of designing and constructing
Like ME/AM, Industrial Operations Engineering is
interested in the application of robots to specific
manufacturing processes such as "bin picKing -
the ability to distinguish and select pne object from a
The University's Electrical and Computer
Engineering department is concerned with basic
research into the "language" of the robot's com-
puter. This department is also looking into the
possibility of adding vision to the robot's list of
AS THESE MANY UNIVERSITY departments in-
Daily Photo by DEBORAH LEWIS
A ROBOT, USED BY University researchers,
carefully arranges cylinders and blocks to build a
small pyramid. Faculty members from the Univer-
sity's engineering departments have been conducting
research into many areas of "the Robotics
Revolution." Some city officials hope that Ann Arbor
may become a world center of the fast-growing in-
vestigate and develop the various aspects of the
fledgling industry, some experts are predicting that
robotics may change the entire nature of American
"We are in part two of the Industrial Revolution,"
ECE Prof. George Lee said, adding that this new
"revolution" - the synthesis between machine and
computer - is just now beginning to pick up steam.
Joan Juzwiak, a spokeswoman for Prab, the
nation's third largest robot manufacturer, located in
Kalamazoo, said her company is now working over-
time trying to meet the overwhelming demand for the
robots. At Unimation, the nation's largest robot
manufacturer, there is currently a backlog of almost
a year on orders.
"THE REASON FOR THE CURRENT change to
robotics," explains Prof. Yoran Koren, a visiting
mechanical engineer from Israel, "is simple
economics. The price of computers went down and
the price of labor went up.
Koren, who has given lectures on robotics at Stan-
ford University and the GM Tech Center, returned
from a tour of Japan last August where he noted the
swift introduction of robots into their industry and the
extensive state-funded research in the field.
By the most conservative estimates, the Japanese
have at least four times as many robots in use than
the 3,500 operating in the United States. And accor-
ding to the Japanese Industrial Robot Association
(JIRA), their 120 robot manufacturing companies
turn out as many units annually as the rest of the
THEY ALREADY HAVE A PLANT, Fujitsu
Fanuc's FUJI factory, where robots actually produce
more robots. The plant operates in three shifts: one
shift with operators and two unmanned shifts (com-
pletely automatic). Says Koren, "One of the reasons
why Japan has so many robots is because the
workers aren't afraid robots will take their place.
They're guaranteed lifetime employment there, so
they see the robots as a chance to increase produc-
tivity and their own bonuses."
There are no such guarantees in the United States,
however, and labor leaders and labor relations
specialists say they are worried about the social costs
of the "the robot revolution," although they admit
there is little anyone can do to stop it.
"THE QUESTION IS NOT WHETHER robots are
good or bad, but how it is best to move the jobs," says
Jesse Hall, a research associate for the University's
Institute of Science and Technology. Hall says the
current push toward robotics is necessary for our
country to remain internationally competitive. "If we
are not competitive, we'll lose jobs anyway," he says.
Robots have some rather frightening ramifications
for labor. Robots increase productivity. They never
go on strike. They have no pension plan, and need no
"The quality of workmanship," says Richard
Wilson from the University Industrial Operations
Engineering Department, "is the important thing. A
robot spot-welding can do it much better than a
PROF. DAVID PRATT, chairman of the
Mechanical Engineering Department, notes another
advantage of robotics.eWith robots you create a
"flexible factory." When a change in the market-
place demands a different product "there is no two-
or three-year wait to retool." Thus, he says, industry
will "be able to program a factory like you can
programa computer; that's the ultimate goal of
Even now, robots can do quite sophisticated jobs.
In a GM Delco Division plant in Rochester, N.Y.,
eight relatively small robots are being used in the
assembly of air conditioner blower motors.
The PUMA robot, according to a GM report, is
made to handle parts roughly smaller than a bread
box and weighing less than 2.3 kg. Such parts
represent about 90 percent of all the components on a
passenger car. In the future, says GM, the PUMA
robot may be assembling heater and air conditioning
controls, instruments and small motors and car-
THEORETICALLY, THE PUMA robot is capable of
taking over a vast number of jobs right now. A recent
article in Business Week says the United Auto
Workers estimates that "assembly line labor could
be cut by as much as So percent over the next nine
years." The union has traditionally advocated
technology, but, as local UAW leader Denny Bryan
says, "within certain guidelines."
The GM report seems to assauge some apprehen-
sions, though. "As we find situations where robots
can be productively used with no negative effect on
the quality of worklife for our employees, we will
bring them in." In other words, ideally the workers
will be displaced to other jobs rather than replaced
See ROBOTS, Page9
"The reason for the current
change to robotics, "explains Prof.
Yoram Koren, "is simply
economics. The price of computers
went down and the price of labor