The PUMA robot from Unimation was a watershed product that launched the assembly robot business in the U.S. and Europe. With the PUMA, industries discovered that robots could be used for small part or light assembly tasks. One of the key members of the team that developed the robot was Brian Carlisle, who worked at Vicarm along with robotics pioneer Victor Scheinman and Bruce Shimano. In 1983, Carlisle and Shimano co-founded Adept Technology, growing the company to more than $100 million in sales. In 2004, Carlisle and Shimano co-founded Precise Automation, which developed the first commercially available collaborative robots.
Joanne Pransky, associate editor for Industrial Robot Journal, recently spoke with Carlisle about the groundbreaking innovations in small assembly and handling robots, as well as highlights from his 40-year career in the industry.
The full interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until Feb. 14. Here is an excerpt:
Early days of industrial robots
Q: Of all the robots you developed, what was your personal favorite, and why?
Carlisle: One very significant one was the PUMA robot, a spinoff out of Stanford University and MIT. Vic Scheinman did some of the original concepting and then I joined Victor at this little startup company called Vicarm in 1975, along with Dr. Bruce Shimano. At Vicarm, our three-person startup developed this six-axis computer-controlled electric robot that we had delivered as a prototype for General Motors (GM). In around 1977, GM, which had taken delivery of these early Vicarm robots, came out with an RFP that they called the PUMA, a GM acronym for Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly.
That was the first time that a major industrial customer got the idea that you could use robots for small part or light assembly, and that entire concept was based on that early Vicarm prototype. At Vicarm, there was no way we were going to be able to supply GM, so we sold Vicarm to Unimation and became an R&D group for Unimation and developed PUMA robots, along with input from GM. So that was really kind of a groundbreaking new technology, specifically targeted for assembly.
My favorite project was the AdeptOne, which Dr. Shimano and I looked at when we started Adept Technology. I spent some time investigating a new technology with high reliability for assembly robots, and identified direct drive motor technology as intriguing. The AdeptOne became the world’s first direct drive industrial robot, which eliminated gears in the two major axes. As a consequence, it was very high precision, extremely robust and reliable, and they were very successful robots. The AdeptOne was certainly what put Adept technology on the map, and they sold 10,000-20,000 of them over the years.
Q: How did you and Precise Automation come up with the first collaborative SCARA robot?
Carlisle: For years and years what we were trying to do, especially in the assembly and small part area, was make a robot as fast as possible. We started a kind of speed benchmark with the AdeptOne in trying to make robots very fast and highly efficient.
Subsequently, other people kept putting more and more power into the SCARA robot and also made the robot physically smaller, down to screaming speed. The issue with that approach is there’s a point of diminishing returns. What happens when you double the speed is you need four times the power because there’s this point where you’re just wasting power while trying to make robots go exceedingly fast. Robots got to the point where they were much less efficient than people, and they were wasting energy. At the same time, more and more protection such as proper screening, was being put onto these factory applications to protect people from getting accidentally hit by these high-speed robots.
We started thinking: How can we make robots that run at a reasonable speed but are inherently safe? The whole collaborative thing was a fundamental philosophy change: Can we make robots that are as safe as possible instead of as fast as possible? And, could you do so without the high expense of having to separate robots with all kinds of shielding and screening from the people?
If you can set up collaborative robots and intersperse them with people on the assembly lines and have people do a more difficult job that might involve a lot of manipulation, such as wiring, while having robots do the really simple tasks like loading and unloading a test fixture, then you could justify robots much more easily. Thus we started collaborative robots in a fairly narrow domain, laboratory automation and life sciences. We picked life sciences and laboratory automation as an initial focus point, because the life sciences customers are going to be doing their R&D in the United States, and not in China. Clinical laboratory applications, handling blood samples and urine samples, etc., are all regional, within a few hundred miles of the customer, and they’re not going to send all that overseas to China. That whole industry was setting a trend for personalized medicine with more analysis and testing and to figure out treatment and analysis for particular diseases. In some cases, hundreds of people just sit there all day with pipettors, these little suction devices that you squeeze with your thumb and you aspirate some fluid out of a test tube and then squirt it into another test tube. Some of these labs get 50,000 test tubes coming in one night, and they have to analyze them all by the next day and not make any data errors.
The life sciences industry became Precise Automation’s initial focus, and we developed these collaborative robots that could work on laboratory benches, where they didn’t have to be walled off from the technicians, who could walk up and load a new rack of plastic trays or test tubes and not worry about the robot hurting the technicians or the other expensive lab equipment. Precise now has a leading market share in that space by quite a bit.
The next evolution
Q: In trying to stay ahead and project future market needs, what do you think will be the next evolution of small part assembly and handling robots?
Carlisle: I think it’s not going to be so much about how fast you can go; it’s going to be are you safe and can you use sensors effectively such as machine vision to feed parts? I think the other thing we will continue to see is a growing market for robots for parts that are five kilograms or less, as some parts and electronics are way down to a few grams level. Most electronics are assembled overseas, and I think there’s going to be a significant market, particularly in Asia, for a very small robot to handle one kilogram or less. Many of the electronic parts that are left here in the U.S. are sort of medium-sized parts, and tend to have a payload about four or five kilograms. So you’ll see robots for just small parts.
I think that greater flexibility in grippers will certainly be important. Though there’s been a lot of work in multi-fingers or more flexible grippers, they’re still pretty awkward, expensive and difficult to control. But at some point it’s quite possible that more flexible grippers will be developed.
There’s also a lot of interest in mobility right now, especially for general machine loading. There’s a market to have a local robot come around with a vertical tower on a mobile base and intermittently service machine tools such as a core tester or some kind of processing machine like a molding machine, where there are various cycles that require loading and unloading.
Q: What do you think master’s and Ph.D. engineering students should be doing to best prepare themselves for the commercial world?
Carlisle: If you want to join a business and make an engineering contribution, I think the single most important thing is for people to understand and take courses in systems engineering. Engineers that want to grow to be team leaders in robotics need to be good across multiple disciplines. You can’t just be a mechanical engineer and know nothing about software, electronics or machine vision. There are now these mechatronic-type of interdisciplinary curriculums that are available at a number of universities. I also think that the ability to work as a member of a team and understand team dynamics to form and achieve goals, make tradeoffs, listen to other people’s opinions, and reach a consensus, are really important.
If you want to start your own business, there’s a whole other layer of education that’s extremely useful. The first thing is you really need to at least take some courses in finance. You need to understand cash flow, balance sheets, and know what P&L (profit and loss) is, because if you want to start any kind of small company, cash is king and if you run out of cash, you shut the place down. I’ve seen lots of entrepreneurs that were all focused on the technology and ignored the business side of the finance/cash side and just ran out of cash.
The second thing that’s critical is marketing. Technology does not sell itself. A lot of engineers think, ‘I’ve got a great new technical idea, and I’m going to invent this thing and the world will beat a path to my door.’ But that just never happens. You need to understand marketing, market analysis, and ways to reach the evolving market. You need to understand product positioning. How will people view your product relative to others?
Lastly what is useful, although I certainly dismissed it when I went to school, is psychology, at least an introductory course. Ideally, the psychology of teamwork and personnel management, because much of what you wind up doing as a manager is motivating, understanding and listening to people. One of the things I learned over my career as a manager is you’ve got to understand the hidden and unstated motivations. There’s way more psychology involved in managing a business than you would ever imagine.