Is robotics and automation a contradiction?

With the Meccano toy it is possible to construct a variety of useful machines. For example a knitting machine, a loom or a steam engine. What these machines have in common is, that they are doing productive work, running fully autonomous and doesn't need a microcontroller or software. On to other hand, robotics are marketed as autonomous systems which will increase the productivity in industry, but most robotics projects who are trying to do so have failed. For example the “Halle 54” project at VW, or the Baxter robot from Rethink robotics, or the Unimation hospital robot.

If meccano like mechanical machines are a great choice for mass automation and robotics project failed to do the same job is maybe the connection between robotics and automation wrong? I mean, who is responsible for the image of robots as a highly productive worker? Is this perhaps only a story and has nothing to do with reality?

Or let me ask the question from the other side, because the danger of misunderstanding is high. Robotics were sold by robotics companies as a technology which will increase the productivity, lower the costs and replace human workers. The idea is, that either humans or robots will work in the factory. That means from a marketing perspective robots are sold as an automation tool. Is this outlook about robotics wrong? Have robots a different kind of social role in future society?

• Is this perhaps only a story and has nothing to do with reality? .... elevators are highly productive robots; in some buildings anyway – jsotola Feb 10 '19 at 17:24
• Are elevators solving a control problem, which has to do with searching in the statespace? – Manuel Rodriguez Feb 10 '19 at 18:11
• the elevator controller has to make a decision about the direction of movement ...... it also has to make a decision about which floors to stop at during the current direction of travel and which floors to stop at during the opposite direction of travel – jsotola Feb 10 '19 at 18:44
• about the meccano construction set you mentioned .... do the loom, knitting machine and steam engine actually produce anything? ..... or do they only simulate the motion of those machines? – jsotola Feb 10 '19 at 18:49
• about an actual loom machine ...... if it is to produce cloth that has some type of pattern or variation, then it requires a program ......in the "old" days that would have been in the form of punched cards ..... a knitting machine would require something similar ...... a steam engine is just a self regulating system that uses feedback – jsotola Feb 10 '19 at 18:57

No, robotics and automation is not a contradiction.

The loom and the steam machine represent the mechanisation of production processes. Later came the assembly line and the electrification of the production processes. The next stage is the robotization of the processes (and I inlcude here the numerical controlled machine tools also). What follows, after the "robotization"-era is the current situatuation, sometimes called the IoT era or Industry 4.0.

Each era had their failures and sucesses, but productivity has grown considerably in each era. There is no credible source which disputes the productivity growth. (The argument regarding automation is always related to labour-displacemnet, no credible source argues on the side of overall productivity decrease).

I have to say I do not no anything about the "unimation factory robot" you mention. The other projects seem to be cherry picked and slightly missinterpreted.

The "Halle 54" project was an early project which was a pilot program, probobly something like a prototype program. I think it is normal for early projects to fail to meet all expectations, as I am sure it took a lot of prototyping to get the first loom machine right. There are many other automation projects in the automotive manufacturing industry, which may not be as well known but are increasing productivity. Most automotive manufacturers are steadily increasing the degree of automation of the products. The number of installed and runnig robots is continously increasing since the '90s. My guess it that unexpected things happen when there is a jump (and not gradual growth) in the automation of a manufacturing process (a more recent example is the Tesla production problems). But this is just a guess.

As for the ReThink Robotics story: there are more and more other companies (e.g. Universal Robots, ABB, Kuka) producing so called co-bots (colaborative robots) and the number of installed (and running) co-bots is continously gorwing, therefor the failure of one manufacturer on a steadily growing market is not relevant. The same goes for service robots, if someone considers Baxter/Sawyer a service robot and not a co-bot.

You can take a look at the share prices and market capitalization of the large robotics/automation/machine building companies. Most of them show a growing trend.

EDIT: Based on the comments below, I would like to re-iterate the conclusions:

• There is no credible source disputing the productivity growth due to the use of robots

• the number of installed robots doubled in the last 10 years (from approx. 1 million units to more then 2 million units, source is the International Federation of Robotics), proving that the industry uses more and more robots

• the projects listed in the question are cherry picked and do not reflect the state of the manufacturing industry.

• despite the partial failures of Halle54, Volkswagen is continuously increasing the number of robots manufacturing their cars

• My guess is that many projects where a jump in the automation degree of the process instead of a gradual increasted is planned have an increased risk of failiure when compared to project whith a goal of gradualy increasing automation degree. Both cases increase the number of robots in the process, the diffrence is introducing 10 robots at a time for one subprocess or 100 for 10 subprocesses.

• Currently in the manufacturing industry, automation in most cases implies the use of robots.

• If i interpret the answer right, the question is how to shape the transition from automation to robotics. The first option is to make it abrupt, the second vision is to make the shift smoothly. What i see for so called white collar jobs is, that the transition into the computerage was done soft and in small steps. In the 1970s the companies have used photocopier machines, in the 1980s mainframe computers, in the 1990 desktop PCs, and since the 2000s all the companies are sending billions of e-mails each day. That means, the industry is using state of the art technology. – Manuel Rodriguez Feb 18 '19 at 12:54
• ... The situation for blue collar jobs is not working in that way. In the 1920 the fully automated assembly line for food production was introduced, which is driven by electric motors and today, the same machine is used. Because it is the best technology available. In contrast, robots have never shown that they are useful. – Manuel Rodriguez Feb 18 '19 at 12:55