What is it about making robots that captures our imagination? Is it the idea of having a servant to fetch beer? Pauly’s robot in Rocky IV makes it’s screen debut serving a birthday cake. I think I saw it in a Nieman Marcus catalog once for $50,000. Nice toy!
Therein lies the problem. With enough time and money, anything is possible. We put a man on the moon didn’t we? And brought him back safely.
So this first question begets a number of other questions. Why? What for? Can it be done cost effectively?
Why? This is more the philosophical question. Some of the answers make sense and inform. Certain applications of robots have to do with situations that are dangerous for humans. Others are based on the consistency and productivity.
When the industrial robot market began it was really necessary to focus on a specific application because of the investment needed to become proficient. Most companies began to focus on welding where the complexity was manageable and return on investment made sense. This lead to the entire automotive industry changing over to robotic welding systems and a large commercial market that was profitable for suppliers.
Shortly after the welding application became well understood, industrial robot companies moved on to spray painting. While this was another big success, the very high cost of robots gave way to electrostatic deposition which is actually a superior process. Many spray painting applications are ongoing, again, because of repeatability and complex geometries that are difficult for human beings to accomplish.
As the markets have continued to progress, costs have fallen dramatically. Equally robot applications have increased. The packaging industry is making increasing use of robots at the end-of-line to put complex parts into boxes. Champagne bottles into cases, candy into trays, palletizing heavy bags for shipment. Many of these tasks are difficult for humans to perform eight hours a day.
The DaVinci surgical robot takes the extreme dexterity of a surgeon and adds the precision and repeatability of machine. The incredibly sensitive feedback system give the surgeon the ability to directly “feel” conditions at the end of the tool. In addition the surgeon gains the benefit of acting with extra tools as if he has 6 arms. This permits complex procedures to be accomplished with little assistance. Since the extra arms can hold their position indefinitely, there is little risk of creating a problem for the patient.
Why do we make robots? Robots are machines like any other, just more complex. At the end of the day, they make money.