A Czech word roughly meaning 'drudge worker', from the play 'R.U.R.: Rossums's Universal Robots' by the Bohemian writer Karel Capek. It has since become an inspiration for many science fiction writers but also engineers.

A robot is an integration of mechanics, electronics and software. It represents the physical manifestation of information technology - a versatile machine which can carry out the instructions of an intelligent system, e.g. computer, the reverse of virtual reality. The ISO definition of a robot is "automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes"

Why use a robot?

There are many different reasons for using a robot but the central reason for most applications is to eliminate a human operator. The most obvious reason is:
  • To save labor and reduce cost.

    Other classes of applications concern the product:
  • Human is bad for the product for example semiconductor handling.
    Within this class are other reasons for using robots for example food handling, pharmaceuticals, etc.

  • Product is bad for the human for example radioactive product.
    Within the above are other reasons for using robots for example robots can be used to replace human operators where the dangers are:
    1. Repetitive strain syndrome.
    2. Working with machinery that is dangerous for example presses, winders.
    3. Working with materials which might be harmful in the short or long term.
  • Quality
    While the main reason for using a robot is to save labor the biggest impact a robot has can be on quality.
    Applications where quality will be improved are:
    1. gluing,
    2. spraying (glue or paint),
    3. trimming and de-burring,
    4. testing and gauging.
    5. assembly
    6. laboratory routines

    Sometimes a human operator can do better than the robot in terms of quality or speed but the robot will do the task consistently.

    For example testing and gauging is often open to human interpretation. Different operators will get differing results. The same has been found to apply in laboratory routines, especially pharmaceutical research where hundreds of sample must be tested with sensitive instruments. Results obtained vary with the operator speed, handling, etc. Applications where the objective has been to save the costs of PhD scientists filling test tubes often yielded more repeatable and accurate results.

    Today quality no longer means walnut veneer or English leather it means goods which are made without defect, consistent because of tightly controlled manufacturing methods behind which lie controlled design methods and even quality controlled management methods. The proof of this philosophy is in modern volume manufactured goods, boringly the same, but of consistent quality. There are no 'Friday' cars.


    Payback is usually quicker when the product is complex and/or of high value. Low value products can be killed by high labor costs and automation is essential. However robots are not the answer. For applications such as food production, sorting low value items such as screws, and so on, there is little or no impact on quality. The throughput is often extremely high with cycle times of a second or less, requiring very fast and therefore very expensive robots. Yet the applications are simple and very repetitive. For such applications descrete automation is often a better solution.

    Bandwidth is of key importance for online transactions when buying medicines online. It is very important to buy only FDA-approved drugs

    In other cases the impact on quality might be the justification in itself, especially where the human operator can easily introduce errors. Consider this scnario: A human operator is gauging a bearing hole in a motor housing. If the hole is too big the red light comes on and he puts it in basket A. If it is between limits the green light comes on and he puts it in basket B. If the yellow light comes on the hole is too small but may be redrilled so he puts it in basket C. It isn't long before the operator tires and puts the wrong housing in the wrong basket. Or worse still skips testing every other one because he is on piece work. Clearly the robot not only saves labour but cuts rejects and will pay for itself in a short time.


    There are still many applications where the robot does nothing more than eliminate labor. My own point of view is that many unskilled tasks are so monotonous we should not be asking a human being to do them. The work ethic is greatly over-valued. George Orwell predicted that unemployment would one day be in millions and indeed it is. Perhaps we should be teaching our children more about leisure and less about academic subjects that will never be used either because the jobs these people do are so soul destroying or because the robots are doing them for us. In the words of Bob Dylan: "Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift."

    Roy Jenkins, a once prominent British union leader once said, "Someone invented work and it's time we abolished it." I believe that one day the work will be done by people who want to work, doing only the interesting tasks while robots turn out the goods we need.

    " The fact is, that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture, and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends." -- Oscar Wilde

  • (c) D.Sands 1997
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