Much has been written and discussed regarding workforce development challenges in the years ahead for the protective coatings industry. Could part of the solution come from technology?
Bob Dahlstrom, founder and CEO of aerial robotics company Apellix (Jacksonville, Florida, USA), believes companies like his may have the answers. A serial entrepreneur, Dahlstrom is passionate about designing and creating software-controlled robotic systems that keep people out of harm’s way and save lives.
He is a frequent presenter on the use of robotic systems for nondestructive testing (NDT), inspection, and evaluation (NDE), and he has presented at numerous conferences. He is author of a chapter in the Handbook of Nondestructive Evaluation 4.0, and he is also active with various standards bodies for robotic inspections.
In celebration of 2022 National Robotics Week, Dahlstrom joined our podcast series to explore new trends in the aerial robotics market. Topics include industry and company developments; feedback from users in the field; workforce implications; and what the future looks like for using robotics across various phases of corrosion control and protective coatings projects.
Read on for a Q&A transcript of select interview portions, and listen to the full episode below.
Q: Give us some background on National Robotics Week. Why is this is so important to your segment of the industry?
Dahlstrom: The interesting thing about robots is that they’re very predictable. They do the same thing, time after time. So being a software person and a roboticist, it’s fantastic to be working with these things that have the ability to change the industry.
By 2026, there’s projected to be over 100,000 painters needed to meet the current demand. So, robots are needed. They’re something that can be utilized as a tool. They’re like any other tool; they’re only the right tool in the right circumstance. You don’t pull out a hammer when you need a screwdriver. But if you use these tools properly, you can replace what’s commonly referred to as the dull, dirty, and dangerous work, and spend your time as a corrosion specialist on something that’s a higher value of your time.
You can delegate a lot of the grunt work, if you want to call it that, to some of these robotic systems. Having a week that celebrates that is important. But it’s also about having the corrosion industry celebrating this, as well, and and realizing that this is the future—and this is how things are going to have to happen, given the fact that we just do not have the workforce.
As our infrastructure keeps aging, and we need more and more painters and corrosion engineers, something has to fill the gap. It doesn’t look like we have enough people, so it’s fantastic that we have robots. This is something that I believe strongly is in all of our benefits to get implemented, sooner rather than later.
Q: Your company at Apellix has progressed a long way the last few years, and you’ve won at the Materials Performance (MP) Corrosion Innovation of the Year Awards and the 2022 Contractor Awards of CoatingsPro Magazine. How are things going, now that you’re out of the startup phase and starting to make an impact out in the field?
Dahlstrom: I like to tell people that we’re more of a scale-up (company) now. We are scaling up because we’re having problems building all the systems that we need to get out the door due to the demand. But I want to circle back to your mentioning of the Contractor Awards, because that is a good example of how these robots can help.
We at Apellix FX+ (Field Services + Lab) won this for an elevated water tower in the city of Wooster, Ohio. About every five years in the Northeast, they clean these water towers, because they have a problem with mold and mildew growing on them. Not only does it aesthetically look bad, but it also can impact the longevity of the coatings systems.
So about every five years, they take people out on lifts and go up and power wash with a sodium hypochlorite chemical to kill the mold, and then rinse it with water to get all that biomass off of the structure—so that it doesn’t reattach and regrow. Doing it with people, obviously, is dangerous. You’re putting people up at elevation in a lift. It’s also expensive, because you’ve got that lift. So, scheduling can sometimes be a problem. Getting access can be a problem.
And then it’s mindless, dull, dirty, and dangerous work. You’re up there, and you get this stuff on your clothes… it’s a strong bleach, it ruins your clothes, and you can inhale it. It’s just not an environment where you want to be.
We did it with the drone. We had half of the tower done conventionally, and half of the tower done with the drone. The productivity increased — we did in about half the time. And it put the person on the ground, where they were safe and out of harm’s way. It made the process much easier and much faster. So, these robotic systems do have the capability to change the industry and change how we work, and make it to where we can tap into our intelligence and do the smart things — while letting robots do the dumb things.
Q: What’s something you can with a drone in 2022 that you weren’t doing a few years ago?
Dahlstrom: The good example is the the power washing drone system. There’s 3,000 psi (20.7 MPa) on the ground at the pump, and at about 131 feet (39.9 m) in elevation, which was the elevation of that water tower. I think we were close to 1,000 psi (6.9 MPa) at the tip. Over time, we will be integrating more and more surface prep capabilities into that system.
We’re building all that off of the same exact technology that we’re using for the spray painting drone, but that drone is still under development, because it’s a more complex system. … If you’re trying to make physical contact with a structure with a drone, or paint with the drone, and you’re off by a couple inches, it’s a huge deal. It could be catastrophic. So when we first started out a few years ago, wrapping your head around that level of complexity was hard for a lot of people.
But now that people see this heavy-lift drone doing something relatively simple, i.e. squirting a bunch of water and chemicals on something to clean… I think it makes it much easier for people to say, “Oh, okay, yeah, it can spray paint. Yeah, it can make contact and take measurements under computer control.” So, as these robotic systems evolve and change over time, we’re also going to find new use cases that the industry is going to come up with and where we can create value.
We’re now up to six patents on all the drones, and that includes spray painting, cleaning, and nondestructive testing. … What we’re trying to accomplish is a cradle-to-grave corrosion management system, to where we’re able to paint something over time, we can clean it, and we can test the thickness of the coating—or the steel or metal—and maintain that asset. When it needs cleaning, (the robot can) clean it. When it needs surface prep, it can do the surface prep, and then recoat. We’re getting there.
Q: In the next few years, is the challenge less about the technology itself and more about getting people in the field comfortable with it?
Dahlstrom: I would say that’s exactly right. When we first started back in 2017, with nondestructive testing, we’d go to some of the oil and gas majors and they’d say, “No way, you’re not flying a drone inside of our refinery. You can’t do it. Drones are not intrinsically safe.” Now, today, they’re like, “Yeah, come in here, we need you.”
And now we’ve got gas devices on there that allow us to get hot-work permits to go into Class I, Division 2, or potentially explosive and hazardous environments. The world has really, really changed. And it will continue to change as the value creation for this continues, and with the (growing) complexity of these systems.
One of our mantras here that we constantly repeat is “Crawl, walk, run.” We start with easy use cases, and over time, we build additional functionality. Eventually, the robot builds up to the point where it’s doing much more complex tasks than what it originally started with.
Q: I know you were at the first AMPP Annual Conference + Expo this year. What do you say to someone that might be concerned about robotics and software replacing traditional human tasks, and what that means for jobs? Is the counter that even if there are fewer humans involved in an inspections, humans are needed to guide the drones and interpret the data?
Dahlstrom: That’s a big concern. A lot of people really are concerned that robots will take their jobs. But for painting, it’s not true. If anything, this is going to create additional jobs. As I alluded to earlier, by 2026, there’s (projected to be) 100,000 painters needed to meet the current demand. In addition to that, by 2031, 41 percent of the workforce will have retired according to the NCCER (National Center for Construction Education & Research).
So, we’ve got a lot of people aging out, and new people aren’t coming in to this. The (average) number is 11 years for new employees to be as productive as the people they’re replacing. Employers may have also have heard this statistic, only one out of 10 new hires lasts for longer than a year. So, we’ve got a lot of people retiring in the industry, and we’ve got very few people coming into the industry. Yet, we’ve got more and more paint jobs that are needed.
As far as getting talent into the industry… a lot of new people don’t want to come in and spend all day at the end of a paint wand, just mindlessly moving it back and forth to apply a coating. But, they do want to come in and operate a robot that’s doing it.
As you alluded to, there’s also the data that these things collect, especially nondestructive testing. One of the benefits of NDE 4.0 is taking advantage of all the machine learning and artificial intelligence. That takes people to do it. Yes, the computers and robots gather the data. They can interpret some of it, they can display some of it, but it really takes somebody that can think about the data. Because if you gather the wrong data, you’re going to make wrong assumptions and wrong conclusions. Thinking about and gathering the right data — or having the drone or robot gather the right data — gives you better results.
So, you always have to have the people. You’re not cutting them out of the loop. You still need the same number of painters. Yes, the drone can paint faster, but you still have to have somebody flying the drone, just like you have to have somebody holding the paint wand. You have to have somebody maintaining the pumps. So the numbers shouldn’t change that much.
Q: What type of feedback are you getting from users? What are some of your next step for the spray painting drone?
Dahlstrom: We’re about to host about 20 people from the industry through our partnership with (paints and coatings manufacturer) AkzoNobel. They’re bringing in 20 of their customers to take a look at the spray painting drone, and to give us their feedback. The whole purpose of this exercise is for their feedback, and to learn what we need to do to make it available for field trials.
We’ve found that methodology to work well. That’s what we did with our nondestructive testing, and with our power-washing system. Getting industry feedback early and putting it into field trials is important. These things may operate perfectly at our warehouse, where we’ve got a facsimile of an aboveground storage tank and a really high wall.
But when you get out into the real world, they don’t always operate the same. You run into challenges that you never foresee. So, getting that feedback, modifying the system, and making it better to overcome those limitations — or making modifications to make it easier to use — is critical and important.
One of the things we say is that, “We’re roboticists and software engineers. We’re not coatings experts.” That’s the great value that we’ve had in our relationship with AkzoNobel. They are (experts), and they’ve been able to help us understand. Over the years, we’ve been able to learn what it means to put down the right layer of film with the right adhesion, so that it does the perfect paint job. That’s what we aspire to do.
A lot of it just comes down to math. You start thinking about the transfer efficiency ratio. If you’re too close with your spray tip, the atomized paint bounces off the surface. If you’re too far, it blows away in the wind. So, getting the right distance from the wall is something people do all the time, and fantastically well, because they’re intuitive. They can say, “Oh, I’m too far,” or too close, and they just move their hand.
But it’s also math. If you know the tip you’re using, the component and (paint) compounds, the weather conditions… these are flying computers. They know the ambient temperature, the barometric pressure, the relative humidity, this temperature of the surface being coated. That all can go into a lookup table in the software. It says, “Okay, given all these parameters, I need to be this distance from the wall, and moving at this speed, to get this mil thickness on the coating.”
Source: Apellix, www.apellix.com.