Robots serve up new directions.
In the 1960s and 70s, when General Motors backed a development program with a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce a programmable universal manipulator for assembly (PUMA), no one really understood the implications or knew how far this technology could go.
In fact, in those days, it seemed that workers' fears of being universally replaced by robots were quite unfounded, given a high failure rate and later several broken windshields from the more unruly units.
But that was back in the days when there was only one kind of reality and computers were too large to fit on a lap.
Now, robotics manufacturers are coming off an outstanding 1994, fired up about the possibilities of a U S "re-industrialization" and encouraged by a slowing down in what some call a "dried-up" Japanese market.
But the real success could just as easily be attributed to the recent entry of robotics on the information highway. Robots are simply more programmable and flexible than ever before, multiple cells can be more easily accommodated and cybernetic gadgetry such as virtual reality and computer simulation have added a new dimension to the sales and installation of robotics.
Not only can a production manager test a supplier's robot, he can also witness the unit's entire operation accurately simulated on a computer screen - without even getting his hands dirty.
The fact that robots are easier than ever to demonstrate to potential users is just one component contributing to the surge in industrial robot sales.
Increased productivity is another. "It is no surprise for the robotics industry to learn that over the last few years, as robotics usage surged, U S companies have posted major productivity gains," says Don Vincent, executive vice president of the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), Ann Arbor, MI.
RIA estimates show roughly 53,000 robots currently working in the U S - a number that is strongly climbing with each new quarter - but Mr Vincent points out Japan has nearly seven times that number.
Robotics suppliers, however, look forward to a profitable decade. With some 200,000 hazardous applications not currently filled by robots, according to RIA figures, the market seems ripe.
Robots were previously defined in very different ways by the U S and its worldwide competitors, but robotics companies are now working from the same page, says Mr Vincent.
The current working definition of a robot is any piece of equipment that has three or more degrees of movement (freedom).
"Particularly with the formation of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), there are now standards that all countries producing robots must adhere to in order to have their products counted," Mr Vincent says.
In terms of applications, more than 50% of today's robots are still used in the automotive industry for arc and spot welding, painting and material handling, but that figure is expected to change with the opening of new markets such as the food service and medical industries.
Many manufacturers are using robots in the loading and unloading of machine tools individually or in cellular configuration.
But the majority of today's "workhorses" are employed in hazardous environments, assembly of precise electronics, and heavy-duty loading.
"The reality is that we're seeing robotics applications in numbers higher than we've ever seen before, and that's because of programmability, easier operation, and lower prices," says Craig Jennings, executive vice president of West Carrollton, OH-based Motoman. "We've taken the mystery out of robots, focusing instead on solving problems with standard, yet programmable, robotic solutions."
Like many other robot manufacturers, Motoman has seen its customer base nearly double in one year, with a growing interest from appliance manufacturers and other product makers outside the traditional industries like automotive.
This boom is expected to continue into 1998, according to forecasts from the United Nations and IFR.
Users, too, are getting smarter, says RIA's Mr Vincent. "They're beginning to realize that an instant return on investment may not be there," he says. "But based on simulation tools, you can project what the performance results might be over time, saving the time, money and aggravation of purchasing an expensive - and possibly unnecessary - robot."
Are robots still viewed as a competitive weapon, or simply a fact of life in the age of corporate downsizing? Both, according to the industry experts we contacted for this series of articles.
Some experts point to the recent downsizing in the defense industry as an indicator that automation is on the rise. Others disagree, saying instead that re-tooling for the future is a normal and necessary part of the competitive process and that downsizing is more directly related to a decrease in orders rather than efficiency requirements.
At any rate, the robotics industry is experiencing a growth spurt that surpasses the boom of the 1980s. There is a new energy to the science of robotics, too.
Consider the recent launch of the $33 million Sandia National Laboratories' robotics research and development facility in Albuquerque, NM. All indicators are that this center will continue to serve up new and future directions.
Then maybe the robots will take over - at least in the manufacturing world - after all.
RELATED ARTICLE: Types of Industrial Robots
Cartesian: runs on an X and Y axis
Gantry: overhead mounted, rectilinear robot with a minimum of between three and six degrees of freedom.
Pick-and-place: parts are transferred via grasp and release tasks performed by a robot with no more than three degrees of freedom.
SCARA: (Selective Compliance Robotic Arm for Assembly): arm sweeps across a fixtured area; payloads on rise.