In 1977, we at Douglas were trying to make the newly available Cinncinati Milicron hydraulic robot do some useful work in the aircraft factory as a first step towards some degree of production automation. At the same time, our government was extending friendship to the Chinese and invited a contingency of high level Chinese engineering people to tour American aircraft factories. I was told to conduct the tour thru our Mfg R&D dept where we were working on super-plastic forming of titanium, composites and robotics, plus other technologies I can’t recall now.
The robot was hydraulically powered and we had a team of engineers working for over 6 mos. with the machine-language software to make this machine function at all. One of the problems with it was the change in operation as the hydraulic fluids warmed and had viscosity drops so that the movements of the arm constantly varied. The team finally was able to make the robot arm hover over a table with lettered wooden blocks, pick up a block and transfer it to another nearby table and stack it like a pyramid. At that time, this was a big deal.
The Chinese delegation arrived, led by a short lady in the blue, high-collar Mau clothing, as were all the other visitors. I swear that all the clothes were identical in size so if you were short, the sleeves came past your hands and if you were tall, the sleeves hardly went past your elbows. Now I did not feel comfortable showing these Communist folks our technical projects but my bosses insisted that I had to, so the tour began with metal forming operations and the visitors took pages of notes and thru an interpreter, asked many questions but never cracked a smile or showed emotions. I could see that they were impressed with all the American technology as we came to watch the robot demonstration.
I told them that we were in early development of robotics and the machine was doing a simple task of stacking blocks but it was a precursor to better things. The robotics team had supposedly warmed up the hydraulics and I motioned for them to start. The heavy arm gradually moved over the first table, picked up a block and placed it in the correct position on the second table, then returned for the next cycle. All was going well as it had stacked around 5 blocks correctly and the Chinese were very quiet watching this progress. On the next cycle, the arm picked up the sixth block and moved to stack it when the arm reared up like an angry horse and then plunged down onto the table, breaking it in half and throwing blocks all over the place, then hanging absolutely limp. This great American technology had taken a complete dump! And the Chinese laughed so hard that it altered the whole mood of the tour and from then on, they were making jokes and kidding me wherever we went, or so my interpreter said.
Today’s robots are electrically actuated and precise and very capable machines, and look at where the Chinese are in technology now. Must have been because of my tour…