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KR FAMULUS: Technological robotics adventure

With its six electromechanically driven axes, the KR FAMULUS was not only extremely challenging from a developer's point of view, but also a technological adventure with an open outcome. Back then, its inventors could only imagine that the design of the KR FAMULUS would mark the beginning of the history of modern industrial robotics.

Guest author
den 10 januari 2024
Lästid: 4 minuter
Written by Marcus Schick

"At the beginning of development, there were of course many different ideas on how to control such a robot," recalls Richard Schwarz. In the end, the team developed a control concept that was not so different from the principle of today's robot control systems. "Of course, everything was much simpler, partly because of the limited resources the team had available at the time. The core of the control system for the first electrically operated industrial robot was a so-called mini or small computer. The position measuring systems were Gray code absolute encoders and the disk motors were controlled by thyristor controllers. We developed and built the interfaces between the individual components and the operating concept ourselves," explains Richard Schwarz.

At the time, Richard Schwarz was part of the development team for the world's first robot with an electric motor to be used in industry

"Bit by bit" every single robot movement

"The KR FAMULUS was programmed on the control panel of the control system using a hand-held programming device, which was called a "programming pear" due to its shape. Due to the low computing power and low memory capacity at the time, coordinated movements within the 6 axes were not possible. The number of possible spatial points was also limited by the sparse memory capacity. Today, a single spatial point requires many times more memory than the KR FAMULUS had available as a complete memory. The drive points generated the signals, which the computer then stored - bit by bit," says Schwarz. The effort required for the control system was enormous, as each movement had to be specified individually - and, if possible, at the exact speed that was later required during operation.

KR FAMULUS: A milestone in the history of robotics

Richard Schwarz was part of the team that developed the first robot with an electric motor for industry over 50 years ago

How innovations are created at KUKA today

"Then as now, the interaction of all players in robot production is particularly important for complex requirements," emphasizes Edmund Bahr.

When solving complex requirements, the interaction of all players in robot production is particularly important.

Whereas the Famulus pioneers were still entirely self-reliant, robots are now developed and manufactured at KUKA across divisional and national boundaries, with the involvement of KUKA's worldwide production sites and international sales and integrator network.

Innovations, product and process optimizations arise from the accumulated experience and knowledge of the entire KUKA cosmos.

Edmund Bahr, Head of Quality and Production at KUKA Deutschland GmbH

The days when designers designed a robot in a quiet room, went to production with the plan and said: 'Now do it' are long gone. In view of globally networked supply chains and ever faster changing customer requirements, holistic production engineering is essential. And this ranges from the initial idea to the involvement of our research and development experts, product management, sales and our software developers and many other international KUKA expert teams. Customer Service and our materials and recycling specialists are also on board right from the start," says Bahr. The focus is always on maximum efficiency with the highest quality standards - both in production and in lifecycle management.

Robot production at KUKA in Augsburg

The focus is on maximum efficiency with the highest quality standards in manufacturing and throughout the entire lifecycle management of robot production

Every time it smoked

When Richard Schwarz thinks back to the beginnings of industrial robotics from today's perspective, he has to smile. "Those were very different times back then," he says. "We thought we could do everything ourselves. Our sporting ambition was coupled with an occasionally somewhat arrogant belief in our own ability. Every time the smoke went up, we thought: that's it, we can't do it. That was one side of it. But the other was the great joy when something went better or right after we had made a change." For him, this is precisely the German engineering spirit that makes innovations and constant leaps in innovation possible.

1970: The development team of the KR FAMULUS - the world's first industrial robot with electrically driven axes

World premiere after 3 years of development

Richard Schwarz and his colleagues felt a little queasy when the KR FAMULUS celebrated its world premiere after three years of development. It was used for the first time as a welding robot in a production line at a German industrial company. "The workers didn't want the KR FAMULUS," recalls Schwarz. They thought the robot would take their work away. In the beginning, inexplicable malfunctions kept occurring as soon as the KUKA assembly team left the factory. "But at some point, the tide had turned. The workers now had other, physically much easier tasks. The KR FAMULUS had suddenly become a very welcome helper in production," reports Schwarz. "Today, I have to smile at how the view of the robot and the associated humanization of jobs could quickly turn 180 degrees."

Loading one of the first KUKA robots

The big breakthrough of the next generation of robots

However, the KR FAMULUS did not achieve its major breakthrough even after its first public appearance at the Hanover Trade Fair in 1974. No more than a handful of the innovative industrial robots were built. It was not until 1977 - almost 5 years after its first presentation - that a well-known German car manufacturer ordered 20 next-generation robots from KUKA for a new plant. A major order that was to be followed by many more. "Our robot factory with 10 to 20 people soon became a corporate and production division with over 100 employees," says Richard Schwarz.

After more than 50 years of success, the quality concept of our industrial robots has more than proven itself.

Edmund Bahr, Head of Quality and Production at KUKA Deutschland GmbH

More than 50 years of robotics expertise

Today, KUKA robots are in use all over the world in a wide variety of industry and industrial applications. As with the KR FAMULUS, the KUKA mission of making people's work easier and being "at their service" with intelligent automation solutions continues to be confirmed every day. In its anniversary year, this is a real reason to celebrate: "Progress and innovation never stand still," confirms Bahr.

Richard Schwarz in robot production at KUKA

Only one question remains: if he could turn back the clock for a moment, what would the Richard Schwarz of today advise the young newcomer who entered a new, often completely unknown field of work 50 years ago? The robot pioneer doesn't have to think twice: "Don't worry. Everything will turn out fine."

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