Archival photos of Emhart Corporation robots in Washburn Hall.

Robots from the Emhart Corporation were used in the Manufacturing Engineering Center to create WPI's first robotics learning laboratory.

The Archivist: Industry Partner Allowed Robotics Innovations

As the introduction of robotic manufacturing began to rapidly change industrial processes, academics struggled with how to quickly transform their learning laboratories into viable teaching models for the modern world. Always on the leading edge of industry and pedagogy, WPI faculty members, including Mechanical Engineering Department Head Arthur Gerstenfeld, sought innovative ways to implement modern manufacturing robots into classroom settings in the early 1980s, at a time when even simple industrial robots cost a minimum of $30,000 ($100,000+ when adjusted for inflation), not including the cost of installation and maintenance.

Meanwhile, at Emhart Corporation, Walter Abel ’39 realized that his company needed to better utilize robotic manufacturing processes if they were to remain viable and profitable. Recognizing the plant floor was not the ideal platform for experimentation, he returned to his alma mater for inspiration. Abel met with Gerstenfeld, and over a cup of coffee, the idea for a new partnership was formed: the Manufacturing Engineering Applications Center. It would continue a philosophy as old as WPI itself, bringing together theory and practice to innovate in education and industry.

In March 1981, the first Emhart robots were wheeled into historic Washburn Shops, creating the first robotics learning laboratory at WPI. IQP teams partnered with their Emhart engineer to test the viability of robotic pop rivet guns, improve the production of doorknobs, and wrap shoe shanks as part of footwear manufacturing. Together with its sister program, the Center for Management of Advanced Automation Technology, WPI offered state-of-the-art opportunities in emerging technologies, just as it did from its founding.

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