Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Robot man Engelberger dies aged 90

Joe Engelberger, who did more than almost any man to introduce robotics into the automotive industry, has died aged 90
The American entrepreneur co-founded the world’s first robotics company with fellow engineer George Devol in 1956; five years later their industrial robot, the Unimate, set to work in a General Motors’ plant in Trenton, New Jersey. Later, Engelberger became known to many as 'the father of robotics'.

Though Devol created the prototype for the mechanical arms that would later become common on assembly lines, it fell to Engelberger to sell the idea in the industrial workplace.

The auto industry was the first to adopt it, with General Motors in Trenton, New Jersey, installing a Unimate arm in 1961.

“It helped with working people that the first robots were put to work doing hot, hazardous, and dull labour,” Engelberger claimed.

The machine operated without a hitch for nearly ten years, keeping up with three shifts of human workers every day.

Initially, however, nobody outside General Motors took much notice (Ford, for example, had its own ideas about robot design - it called them UTDs or universal transfer devices), so he took his sales pitch to Japan, where he had a warmer reception.

By the early 1980s Japan had transformed itself into an industry leader, responsible for building more than 50 per cent of the world’s industrial robots.

The son of German immigrant parents, Joseph Frederick Engelberger was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 26 1925. The family moved to Connecticut during the depression but Joseph returned to New York City for his college education, where he first encountered the works of Isaac Asimov.

A fascination with robots motivated him to study physics at Columbia University, followed by a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

To fund his studies he enrolled in the US Navy’s officer training programme and worked on early nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. In 1946 he joined Manning, Maxwell & Moore, working his way up to become chief of engineering in the aircraft products division.

Ten years later, Engelberger met George Devol, who had recently completed work on a mechanical arm that he called a “programmed article-handling device”.

They bonded over a mutual admiration for Asimov, but Engelberger immediately recognised the significance of Devol’s invention. He bought out the licensed technology from Manning, Maxwell & Moore and secured financial backing for a robotics company, to be called Unimation Inc.

Engelberger became the president and chief promoter of the company, which expanded to employ more than 1,000 people. He and Devol eventually parted ways, and in 1983 Engelberger sold Unimation for $107 million. The following year he founded Transitions Research Corp in Danbury, Connecticut.

Subsequently renamed HelpMate Robotics, the company set out to create robots nimble enough for homes and public buildings.

Engelberger will be long remembered as the robot industry’s greatest salesman. His wife Margaret died in 2007. Their two children survive him. (Joseph Engelberger, born 26 July 1925, died 1 December 2015).

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