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Robotics Show Highlights Versatility of Automated ‘Employees’

April 22, 1986

CHICAGO (AP) _ No longer merely the stuff of science-fiction movies, robots are a booming business, with 1985 sales totaling $442.7 million.

This week, some 20,000 people are on hand at Robots 10, the industry’s 10th annual convention, to see automated ″employees″ do about everything from assembling autos to cutting cakes.

But most visitors to the four-day show sponsored by the Robotic Industries Association of Dearborn, Mich., don’t care how well the ceremonial cake was cut.

They’re more interested in the tasks robots can perform on the factory floor - riveting, painting, welding and assembling products.

Bill Salsman of Caterpillar Tractor Co. was among the thousands there Tuesday for a look at the latest in robot technology.

His attention was drawn to a ROBCAD North America demonstration of a computer system that allows managers to simulate a robot’s performance before it’s installed.

The system, billed as a breakthrough by Birmingham, Mich.-based ROBCAD, provides a computer picture of the robot, which can be put through the paces of a desired program for a preview of the robot’s capabilities.

″You can’t just buy them and set them up,″ said Salsman, in charge of one of two robotics programs for Peoria-based Caterpillar, which uses about 230 robots worldwide for tasks such as welding and material handling.

Among the factors that must be taken into account when converting to robotics are size and reach, the type of joint or arm used, and whether a robot can perform the functions in a timely way, he said.

″Simulations help you do that faster and less expensively,″ Salsman said.

Despite the technological advances being displayed by some of the 200 exhibitors, manufacturers are a long way from being able to run a robot-filled factory from a computer terminal, he said.

″Realistically, we would like to do that kind of stuff, but we’re not there yet,″ Salsman said.

Also shopping for new technology was David Jacoboski of Westinghouse Materials Co. of Ohio, which wants to automate a plant in Fernald, Ohio, where uranium is used to make a component of nuclear weapons for the federal government.

Automation would reduce worker exposure to radiation, he said.

″I think it’s fantastic,″ Jacoboski said of Robots 10, his first robotics show.

But Dean Fresonke, an automation researcher for AT&T Bell Labs in Orlando, Fla., was less impressed.

″You can’t go into these places with too much of a glassy eye,″ Fresonke said. ″Quite a few of the demonstrations are not real world.″

He said the robotics industry must do a better job of creating flexible machines that can be used on the factory floor by people who aren’t robotics experts - and come up with machines that can ″see″ and have a sense of touch.

″The robots themselves are getting to be fairly good structurally, but they’re deaf, dumb and blind,″ Fresonke said.

Not everything was high-technology at the show that runs through Thursday.

A robot named Unimate 762 was turning out one of the few giveaway gimmicks - personalized metal business-card holders - and dunking them in water to cool them after welding.

″This high-tech business welding system has been in use by blacksmiths for at least several centuries,″ joked Vince Pavone of Unimation Inc., a Westinghouse division.

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