Remembering Joseph Engleberger

Celebrate the Life and Accomplishments of One of Connecticut’s
Greatest Innovators in Advanced Manufacturing
By Dan Wisneski

Although it may seem odd to celebrate the work of a scientist whose greatest obsession in life was to take jobs away from human beings, had it not been for the work of Joseph Engleberger between the 1950s and the 1980s, advanced manufacturing would not be standing on the cutting edge of its current, massive expansion.

Unimate Photo #3

Engleberger, credited as the “father” of the industrial robotics sciences, formed a company in 1956 called Unimation with George Devol. Together, they built a rudimentary robot arm and held the first robotic patent. What they produced revolutionized the factory and manufacturing industry: a mechanical tool that freed workers on the manufacturing floor from simple and repetitive tasks.  This invention led to the creation of more advanced concepts, such as technology that allows robots and humans to work together.

Engleberger began his career as a young engineer at Manning, Maxwell and Moore, a company that was headquartered in Bridgeport for many years, but that recently moved to Stratford because the business was growing at an exponential pace. At the time, MMM was the industry leader in manufacturing products related to oil, natural gas, and petroleum. Engleberger, however, preferred not to work in MMM’s primary industries, and instead chose to work in a field he is passionate about: the aircraft division. Devol met Engleberger based on the strength of the concept, and Engleberger convinced MMM to allow Devol to begin working on the design and construction of a prototype of the robotic arm, which Engleberger eventually licensed as a patent.

While in the United States, the robots were initially met with much derision, their volume grew, and workers began to fear that they might lose their jobs. Engleberger’s plan, however, was not to produce something that would take away jobs, rather something that would elevate the workers to more skilled, higher paying jobs.

Today robots and humans work “side-by-side” on myriad of manufacturing floors and the technology driving them continues to change and adapt with the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, microchip technology, which continues to evolve, and much, much more. All the robots ever made share something in common: they began with the invention by Joseph Engleberger, father of robotics.

In Part II of the three part series we will look at the future of robotics in manufacturing, including a robot that is trained by in-house staff, not programmed, which will usher in the new era of collaborative robotic manufacturing. For more on Unimate, see Becca Rosen’s Unimate: The Story of George Devol and the First Robotic Arm.” Sources for this article include botmag.com, the New York Times and Wikipedia.