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Where are all the woodworking robots?

Robots were a hot topic when I joined the editorial staff of WOOD & WOOD PRODUCTS in 1985. They were going to revolutionize woodworking much as they had done in the automotive industry.

Midway through my rookie year, I attended a robotics for woodworking seminar in Charlotte, N.C., put on by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. What I remember most about the event has nothing to do with robots nor woodworking for that matter. While waiting for an elevator in the lobby of the Adams Mark Hotel, I learned that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded.

In the ensuing 10 years, NASA fortunately has not experienced a similar tragic episode and, to the best of my knowledge, the SME has not sponsored another robotics for woodworking seminar. I think it's safe to say that the headline of an article I authored for our March 1986 issue rings true today: "Robots Still on the Sidelines of the Wood Products Industry."

This is not to imply that robots are not being used at all by the woodworking trade; they simply have not lived up to the early hype. The interest level of employing robots for wood finishing, assembly and materials handling applications has taken a backseat to flat panel processes and the use of vacuum lifts, automated conveyors, feed-through technologies and multiple-task machining centers outfitted with automatic tool changers.

At the SME seminar, I met a representative of a major furniture company that had ambitious plans to use robots on its assembly and finishing lines. From information I obtained a couple of years later, the prototypes failed and thus the project never materialized.

Robots for show

We can usually count on seeing a robot or three at the major woodworking trade shows. They are great attention grabbers, well capable of attracting a throng of people to a booth.

For example, at last year's Ligna Hanover woodworking fair in Germany, an exhibitor displayed a workcell "manned" solely by a materials handling robot. The robotic arm loaded a part onto one of the dual tables of a machining center, removed a completed part from the second work table and then swung to the left to position the part against an edge sander. After carefully stacking the edge-sanded part in a completed pile, the robot arm swung to the opposite end of the workcell where it moved a checker and, with comic flair, tossed a captured piece into a bucket. It made for an entertaining spectacle, but a trade show booth is a far cry from the reality of a factory floor.

As I stated earlier in this column, I am sure there are a few U.S. woodworking operations using robots. In fact, while researching our Centennial Issue, I came across several stories, written in the 1980s, about robots being used in woodworking plants. But not in any that I have visited.

I had to travel to Japan to see robots successfully being used in woodworking factories. (My report begins on page 43 of this issue.) But even in high-tech minded Japan, where the average woodworker makes $35,000 a year, robots in woodworking are rare. And that will probably continue to be the case unless the cost of labor goes through the roof, or the price of robots comes way down.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Chistianson, Rich
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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