Top 10 robotics firsts from ABB

We've been making robots for almost 40 years now, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we've racked up a number of important firsts in the industry.

Counting down the top 10 ABB Robotics firsts below is a fun stroll through memory lane–as well as a glimpse of the future to come.


1) Commercially available, microcomputer controlled and electrically driven robot

Before ABB came along and started building robots for industrial manufacturing in 1974 nobody was selling anything commercially that had the precise movements of electrically driven axes and microcomputer control. In fact, just recently it was with great sadness that one of the instrumental developers of our first IRB 6, Björn Weichbrodt, passed away. In December 1971 Björn joined ASEA’s (the A in ABB) hydraulic department with the task of leading a team to develop a robot. Everyone expected that this would be a hydraulic robot, but Björn worked on two parallel concepts–one hydraulic and one electric. Initially ASEA was resistant to trying something new (all robots sold to this point were run on hydraulics, very slow and inaccurate), but eventually his team won them over with electric drive. And boy are we glad they did.

Björn may be gone, but the first robots he designed are still running strong and carrying on his memory in the same factory in which they were installed. Don’t believe it? We have proof on video:


2) Joystick for robot control

When we first introduced joystick control for robots in 1983, we were so confident in the importance of having a joystick in the device that we patented it. To this day nobody else matches the natural interface of using a joystick to control the robot and our FlexPendant is considered the best in the industry. The following video says it all:


3) Delta-style robots for high speed picking

In 1999, ABB was the first to market with a delta style high speed picking robot–a type of robot consisting of three arms connected to a joint in the base. We called it the FlexPicker, and today that name is used to describe delta style robots in general–even if they aren’t ours! We have sold thousands of them around the world, resulting in picking lines that can move product at incredible speeds. Just recently we started selling a much higher 8 kg payload version which provides even more flexibility for packing lines.


4) PC-based virtual programming

ABB’s RobotStudio software was the first of its kind in the industry when it was released decades ago. In fact, when IBM released their first PC, we introduced the first version of RobotStudio (at the time named OLP). Since then it has broken ground in so many ways allowing for true WYSIWYG 3D virtual programming of our robots. Programming in this fashion has saved countless untold hours of time, resources and money for our customers. With the newest version of RobotStudio we are even introducing video game-like realism, lighting and physics to continue to push the curve.

Back when we introduced it we had to explain to people what “it” was. So we released a series of funny videos. Here’s just one:


5) Predictive remote monitoring

Information in the cloud. Watching your robots for you so that you can focus on what you do best: production. With our Remote Service system, we are again breaking ground on a new paradigm in customer service that provides the ultimate in peace of mind, by offering customers 24/7 predictive remote monitoring. The system can be run wirelessly or hard-wired to the Internet, and continually monitors customers’ robots, setting off an alarm when any robot conditions change. Once alerted, via SMS and/or email, ABB’s service support center receives complete diagnostic information via the wireless technology, analyzes the data on the Remote Service portal and a service specialist responds within minutes.


6) Complete systems for robotic arc welding

A year after we introduced the first commercially available microprocessor controlled robot, we introduced the first welding package for that robot, complete with a positioner. Back then the controller was the size of a refrigerator and the robot only had 5 axes–you can see a picture of the system below. By today’s standards it was quite limited in what it could do, but it was the start of what would become one of ABB’s core markets for industrial robotics. Since that time we have continued our quest for perfection, and today offer one of the most comprehensive welding and cutting portfolios on the planet.


7) Lean ID for cost effective cable protection

The dressing on the robot–the cables and whatnot that connect the tools at the end of the arm to the rest of the operation and deliver things like air, wire, and electricity–are at least as important as the robot itself. In many cases, the dressing is what causes the most service headaches as they wear out and need replacing. Fully integrated dressings (ID)–meaning ones that are mostly internal on the robot–are quite cost prohibitive and can be limiting to what can be run through them. ABB’s new Lean ID is a first in the industry and achieves a balance between cost and durability by integrating the most exposed parts of the dress pack into the robot, making it easier to program and simulate with predictable cable movements, creating a more compact footprint, and lengthening service intervals due to lessened wear and tear.

Our newest robot, the IRB 6700, has been designed to accommodate Lean ID from the ground up. See for yourself in this video:


8) VirtualArc simulation for robotic weld quality

When a robot makes an arc weld, it can sometimes still be hard to figure out at what speed that robot should move across a particular substrate to make the perfect weld. Sometimes it takes an incredible amount of trial and error to hit on the right combination. But with our industry first VirtualArc software simulation you can figure it out pretty darn close (if not spot on) before you even touch a real workpiece.


9) All electric paint robot with integrated process equipment

In 1986 ASEA acquired the Trallfa painting robot operations based in Bryne, Norway. Trallfa had already achieved their own first when the launched the world’s first painting robot in 1969. Working together with our new colleagues we then introduced the world’s first all electric paint robot, based on the IRB 2000. Sales boomed through the late eighties as the automotive industry started to paint bumpers and other plastic parts. Today you would never think of painting complex shaped parts any other way.

10) Foundry Plus protection

The international standards for protection of sensitive equipment in inclement and hazardous environments–known as IP67 and IP69– do a pretty good job of covering most situations. But when a task is as tough as the foundry environment you need something that really goes beyond the call of duty to prevent your robots from failing when things get hot–quite literally. Our Foundry Plus protection (now we’re on Foundry Plus 2), offers just the protection you need.

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About the author

Anne Waltenberger

I joined ABB Robotics Marketing Communications team in 2005 and have become passionate about both Robotics and Communications. I think I have the best job in the world. Being the Global Communications Manager for the most exciting product ABB has to offer and working with so many talented and skilled people from all over the world is a true pleasure. I have a degree in Linguistics, Psychology and Literature and benefit from them when trying to explain why robots can help to make this a better world.
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