George Devol: Father of industrial robots

George Devol (1912-2011): Father of industrial robotics and tireless inventor

By Morand Fachot

George Devol, the man who has been called the father, grandfather and even great grandfather of industrial robotics and who died on 11 August 2011 at the age of 99, filed his last patent when he was… 98! The legacy of Devol, who once described himself as "the perpetual Don Quixote. Always flailing my arms", will be ever-felt at the IEC where many IEC Technical Committees prepare International Standards for systems he invented and that are part of our lives.

Modern microwave oven (Photo: Panasonic) Modern microwave oven (Photo: Panasonic)

Father of industrial robots…

Devol was best known as the "father of industrial robots" after inventing the first programmable industrial robot, which was introduced 50 years ago. Since then robots have been part of manufacturing throughout the world, in the automotive industry where they started as well as in nearly all other industrial activities.

By the mid-1950s, Devol, who had already developed many inventions that are omnipresent in modern life, noted that tooling was regularly being scrapped as product designs changed increasingly rapidly. Inspired by books about robots by science-fiction author and fellow scientist Isaac Asimov, Devol reflected that automation would allow tooling to adapt to product changes through reprogramming, and to perform tasks, including difficult and repetitive ones, with precision and endurance. He patented a device that could do this.

After years of development, which included designing a digitally-controlled system, a solid-state memory system, servo controllers and special hydraulic and electrical power supplies, Universal Automation or "Unimation, Inc." created its first robotic arm, Unimate. The device was installed at a GM (General Motors) plant in New Jersey, US (United States), in 1961. This first Unimate was used to move hot metal for die-casting and to perform spot-welding on cars. Unimation, Inc. soon began full scale production, expanding to include robots that could weld, print, and assemble.

"I just can't understand America"

The introduction of robots to US industry was initially met by scepticism from managers – GM avoided publicity when it installed the first Unimate – and hostility from unions and workers who saw it as threatening jobs. In fact it emerged later that the jobs eliminated by the advent of robotics were unskilled or semi-skilled, whilst those created required a significant technical background.

Japan, realizing that it would face a labour shortage in the medium term, and looking to improve the quality of its products, was quick to introduce Unimate robots to manufacturing and beyond the automotive sector. Kawasaki Heavy Industries licensed its first hydraulic robot from Unimation and manufactured its first Unimate in 1969, opening the way to the automation of Japanese industry, allowing it to overtake its US counterpart in many domains, in particular the automotive sector. Devol deplored the US losing the initiative in robotics: "We're handing it to the Japanese on a platter," he told The Washington Post in 1983. "I just can't understand America."

… father of automatic doors, bar code readers and more

If Devol is best known for his pioneering work in the domain of industrial robotics, many of his other inventions from the 1930s, that use sensors and photoelectric switches, have become part of our daily lives.

One of his first inventions was the automatic photoelectric door. The company he set up, United Cinephone, licensed it to Yale & Towne, which manufactured and sold it under the name "Phantom Doorman". This system is the precursor of the automatic doors we see every day, everywhere, in shops, offices and many other places.

Devol also created the first photoelectronic entrance counter, which was first demonstrated in New York at the 1939 World Fair. The device counted visitors automatically, replacing the turnstile.

International Standards for photoelectric detectors, used in such doors and systems, are prepared by IEC SC (Subcommittee) 47C: Optoelectronic, display and imaging devices, part of IEC TC (Technical Committee) 47: Semiconductor devices.

ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and the IEC have established JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1/SC 31: Automatic identification and data capture techniques, preparing International Standards for bar code systems.

Devol experimented with microwave technology and, in 1946, developed the "Speedy Weenie", a vending machine that cooked and dispensed hot dogs on demand. Speedy Weenies were installed in several locations including railway stations in New York.

Microwave ovens have now entered many households in developed countries and IEC SC 59K: Ovens and microwave ovens, cooking ranges and similar appliances, prepares International Standards for such appliances.

Late recognition

Devol was inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in March 2011. The citation read: "Devol's patent for the first digitally-operated programmable robotic arm represents the foundation of the modern robotics industry (…) today, industrial robots have transformed factories into safer places and improved products with precision and consistency".

In 2005, the Popular Mechanics magazine selected Unimate as one of the top 50 inventions of the last 50 years, together with such ubiquitous devices and products as the television remote control, the microwave oven and the jet airliner.

Devol, the tireless inventor who received his final patent when he was 98, regretted that the US had failed to benefit fully from his robotics work in spite of his efforts: "How can we afford to let a country as big as this one go down the drain in manufacturing capability?" he told the Miami Herald in a 1984 interview, adding, "I'm the perpetual Don Quixote. Always flailing my arms".

ABB robot successor of Devol's Unimate robotic arm (Photo: ABB) ABB robot successor of Devol's Unimate robotic arm (Photo: ABB)
Modern microwave oven (Photo: Panasonic) Modern microwave oven (Photo: Panasonic)
Devol developed a simple bar code system Devol developed a simple bar code system