In the 1890s, the birth and proliferation of the automobile was sparking the imaginations of many pioneering engineers. Johan (Hans) Keller and Jakob Knappich were no exception. The two entrepreneurs were working together at an acetylene factory they founded, to address the growing need for better fuels. Theirs was the most suitable fuel for lighting, and less expensive than petroleum.

Keller (born in 1870 to a master raftsman ) and Knappich (born in 1866 in Lechbruck, where his father was a stonemason) were soon building large-scale acetylene equipment systems, with carbide charges of 2 to 100 kg. In fact, their service extended into municipal lighting projects. With the advent of new lighting technologies, however, Keller and Knappich were forced to find new business, and so eventually moved into oxyacetylene welding.

This led to a partnership with Daimler-Benz to build municipal refuse vehicles — an affiliation that would later fix the company's future.

As World Wars I and II moved through Europe, the company diversified into manufacturing other products, including safety winches, typewriters, and knitting machines. During that time, Keller's surviving wife joined the management team and Erich Knappich joined his father in the business. Though the Knappich family took over complete ownership, by 1927, the company name was officially recognized as Kuka — Keller Und Knappich Augsburg.

It was then the company began to focus a great deal of time on car construction with multi-spot welding for Daimler-Benz. This led to the testing and development of robotic welding technology. The company began studying handling systems and robots by testing user markets to determine the viability of this technology. In 1971, Kuka delivered the first welding transfer line with robots to the automaker. These five-axis robots were made by an American company, but did not offer high enough mechanical or electrical capacity or accuracy. In 1973, the company manufactured its first robot that was made completely from Kuka components. It tested two prototypes, and five years later, reworked its prototype to create the model for which all Kuka robots later followed — the IR 6/60, an electromechanical, six-axis robot that lifted 60 kg in normal mode and 100 kg at reduced speed. Full production of later models began in 1978.

In the mid-90s, the company strengthened its manufacturing capabilities in the Detroit area to build relationships with American automakers. Now Kuka Robotics Corp. (with U.S. headquarters in Clinton Township, Mich.) has become one of the largest makers of robotic systems worldwide.

For more information, visit kuka.com or contact the editor at mgannon@penton.com