A century of technology

Belts and bots

The inside of a factory hangar, with hundreds of yet to be assembled parts of car engines in the foreground and large machines in the background.

In Modern Times - one of the most iconic 20th-century movies - Charlie Chaplin’s character Little Tramp is trying to survive the Great Depression and the monster that was held accountable for it: industrialisation. Through this cinematic masterpiece, the image of the dehumanising working conditions of factory workers manning an assembly line were burnt into our collective memory.

Charlie Chaplin stands in front of a conveyor belt and is holding two wrenches

An invention from the mid-19th century, the assembly line brought major changes to factory production processes and to the lives of factory workers. This was particularly true for assembly lines that took the steam and electric conveyors of the 1880s to the next level.

A photograph of machinery powered by steam engines in a factory

The next generation assembly line was to a large extent driven by innovations from the automobile industry, instigated by William Klann at Ford Motor Company. Klann had visited one of the world’s first industrial assembly lines at a slaughterhouse in Chicago. He took away the idea of moving an unfinished product from workstation to workstation, having workers repeat the same actions over and over. His aim was for work to proceed quicker and goods to be produced at a lower cost.

A car factory with a 1 kilometer-long assembly line, 1949, Charles Dekeukeleire, Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique

In 1913 the Ford T assembly line started running at the factory in Michigan, soon delivering upon its promise: cars were produced so quickly that the company had to reduce the amount of available colours as only the black paint would dry quickly enough. The process also caused a price drop, making cars more affordable to a wider range of consumers.

A photograph of the inside of a car assembly factory, a car hangs suspended from a winch and in the background a group of officials in suits are getting a tour of the factory.

Higher efficiency, higher wages, more safety measures, a decrease in injuries, cheaper products: with that many perks, who could criticise this new technology? Like Chaplin, many sceptics considered the assembly line a threat to human nature and creativity. Social alienation, boredom, the devaluation of manufacturing were deemed detrimental effects, as were the health hazards that soon became apparent: repetitive stress injuries, strains due to non-ergonomic infrastructures and hearing damage because of machinery noise.

Women sit on either side of a conveyor belt to assemble toy Rolls Royce cars

This didn’t prevent the example set by Ford to quickly permeate the automobile industry. After a first surge in the 1910s and 1920s, a new boost occurred during World War II, when the large demand for military hardware brought assembly line processes to the fields of shipbuilding and aircraft production. With the boom in consumerism after the war, assembly line processes invaded other sectors as well, notably those of household appliances and other electronic goods.

Industrial assembly lines and machinery at the 12th edition of the Salone della Tecnica in Turin, 1962. Istituto Luce – Cinecittà. InC

As this newsreel shows, postwar Europe saw an immense public interest in developments in industrial production. Hence the hordes of curious visitors at a technical fair in Turin, Italy in 1962. They were mostly intrigued by the growing role of robots in the manufacturing process. Once a simple mechanical aid for repetitive tasks, robots rose to great importance in production environments, culminating in the so-called ‘lights-out factories’ which are fully automated.

Robots and industrialization in Italy, 1987. Istituto Luce – Cinecittà. In copyright

An early example is the ‘Unimate’ robot invented by George Devol in 1954: the pioneer among the modern industrial robotic arms. Again, it was the car industry that jumped on the innovation, with General Motors first integrating the ‘Unimate’ in their production line.

a robotic assembly arm made of metal and painted orange sits on a bench, a small plaque in front of it describes its function and history

In the Europe of the 1970s, ASEA/ABB robotics produced one of the world's first commercially available electronic microprocessor controlled robots. They sold the IRB 6 robots to a Swedish company, where they were used for grinding and polishing pipe bends as early as 1974.

Welding robot working on a new Volvo model during a recording of the Dutch program Brandpunt in de markt, 1985. Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. In copyright

Since then a breathtaking array of functionalities and improvements have been added to industrial robotics, from SCARA robots specialised in precise lateral movements - ideal for an assembly line - to Delta robots suitable for pick-and-place tasks.

a technical drawing of a mechanical device used as a robot to handle objects on an assembly line.

The most astonishing result of 20th century advancements is how much easier in use and widespread the implementation of such robots has become. Apart from carrying out complex processes in varying roles, robots are evolving beyond ‘taught behavior’ and operator-driven action. By use of artificial intelligence, robots have become part of the decision-making process and turned into indispensable actors of industry.

top-down photograph of a partly assembled car next to a highly specialised mechanic robot arm.

The astonishing capacities of robotic minds have led humans further than ever onto the path towards robophobia. Concerns about the ethics of self-sufficient robots have emerged, and with more than a million and a half robots working in industrial environments, their impact on employment and the competitiveness of small businesses has come into question. As the uncanny valley-phenomenon suggests, the gap between humanoid machines and humankind is one many are reluctant to see closed.

a cartoon drawing of two scientists in a lab, and a humanoid robot hiding behind a computer cabinet and smoking a cigarette. The one scientist asks the other: 'Hardu sett noe til Igor 380?' (Have you seen Igor 380?).