From the object to the wire-frame and polygon model with smoothed planes
(Sutherland/Sproull/Schumacker: Characterization 1974, p.5, fig.2c-f).
“We thought we could solve the robotics problem with 3D graphics,” says Scott Walter, Chief Technical Advisor for Visual Components.
Before they could get started, Walter’s team had to invent many things we now take for granted, such as lighting models, geometry kernels and user interfaces. Developers who could assist were few and far between as people with programming and computer graphics skills were difficult to find.
Robots themselves were also a problem. Each had their own language, standards for backup and a proprietary OS. Making things even more difficult, robot vendors were reluctant to share details about their robots, fearing that they would look bad or the promised cycle time would be off.
“There was no CAD of fixtures and tools, so we had to reverse engineer using a ruler and tape measure,” Walter continues.
Developing the first standards
As computers got faster and robots improved, Walter’s team was able to concentrate more on the application and less on the peripherals. Still, it was clear that the simulation could only be as good as the robot model. Since vendors would not share proprietary information with the simulation suppliers, the software was limited to reachability and feasibility studies.
There was a desperate need for industry standards. An initiative called the Realistic Robot Simulation project, or RRS, was launched in order to develop a standard protocol for simulation tools to talk with controller software. RRS was a technical success that has been adopted by the automotive industry. However, RRS modules are not readily available outside the automotive industry, and the standard is limited to two simulation brands. In other words, it is not treated like as a standard.
“Disappointingly, a standard that could solve many problems is being held hostage,” laments Walter.
A lot has changed since the 1980’s. These days, everything is designed in CAD and the entire environment is in 3D. Finding good developers is no longer a challenge either, as powerful computers have become household items.
“Were we to start over again today, our job would be much easier,” Walter says. “We could just focus on factory simulation, because all the other stuff is available in toolkit form, and you can transfer a program to any robot with a thumb drive.”
Nevertheless, Walter still finds the current state of the industry disappointing.
“All data starts in CAD, but the information flow is where problems begin,” explains Walter.