Steel Coatings Articles

Addressing Workforce Challenges Through Training, Robotics

PaintJet’s Bravo robotic painter uses predictive analytics imaging. Photo courtesy of PaintJet.

While the global demand for steel is projected to continue to rise, the industry is facing a scarcity of skilled labor. In 2018, of 2,500+ construction firms surveyed, 80% reported having difficulty filling craftworker and salaried roles, according to a joint survey by Associated General Contractors of America and Autodesk.

One of the primary factors impacting the labor shortage is an aging workforce and expanding age gap as seasoned professionals reach retirement age. This challenge is compounded by a decline in interest from younger workers entering the workforce and a concern about adequate skill levels. In tandem, these factors contribute to an overall employee shortage and lead to increased workloads placed on current crews, to impacted productivity, and to jobsite safety concerns.

Many industry leaders and organizations are looking to vocational programs and specialized certifications to help strengthen skills and encourage recruitment efforts. For example, the Association for Materials Protection and Performance (AMPP) recently introduced the Industrial Coating Application (ICA) Training Program for sprayers and blasters.

Unlike traditional educational programs, the ICA Training Program offers a flexible, dynamic experience that can be tailored to each student’s needs without compromising quality. The subscription-based program’s customizable structure makes it suitable for students of all skill levels — from those new to the workforce to experienced individuals seeking to gain industry-recognized credentials.

“This program is designed for success,” said Sara Badami, manager of education operations for AMPP, in a press release. Developed in direct response to customer feedback and tailored to meet the needs of contractors, the program offers workshops, instructional videos, and around-the-clock access to essential resources such as student workbooks, hands-on experiences, and presentation materials.

It also features two distinct modules: one focused on industrial blasting fundamentals and one focused on industrial spraying. The blasting module is ideal for expediting the learning process for those in training, while the spraying module offers a more in-depth, concentrated approach, covering topics such as coating fundamentals, receiving and storage, and application techniques.

Contractors can also align the program with project timelines, meet AMPP Qualification Procedure (QP) training needs, and prepare employees for relevant certifications such as Abrasive Blaster Certification (C7), Spray Application Certification (C12), and Coating Application Specialist (CAS).

In addition to training programs and skill-building initiatives, robotics technology and automation is gaining momentum as an avenue to address high-risk, complex challenges and alleviate the pressure felt by workforce concerns.

For instance, the robotics company PaintJet specializes in industrial painting applications, such as large-scale commercial structures and essential infrastructure. The startup recently raised $10 million in Series A funding — bringing their total funding to $14.75 million — to provide automation technology to the construction industry and address widespread labor shortages.

“The demand for skilled labor in construction is rapidly outpacing the available workforce,” said George Easley, principal at Outsiders Fund, the venture capital firm that led the fundraising round, in a press release.

In the United States alone, it’s estimated that an additional 100,000 laborers are needed to meet today’s commercial painting needs. That number is expected to grow as extreme weather events lead to accelerated building deterioration, wear and tear on building exteriors, increased maintenance, and repainting.

“If we don’t have the people or knowledge to properly apply these coatings, we’re putting millions of dollars of infrastructure at risk,” said PaintJet’s CEO and co-founder Nick Hegeman.

The company’s AI-powered technology is designed to address this disparity, providing automated solutions to protect valuable infrastructure against natural elements and premature aging. For example, PaintJet’s Bravo robotic painter and proprietary Alpha Shield paint offer companies a complete solution for industrial painting that increases efficiency and optimizes expenses.

Powered by predictive analytics imaging, Bravo robots help reduce overall operational costs and minimize exposure to toxic chemicals by using 25% less paint than traditional coating methods. The robots also help ensure a high-quality finish, while Alpha Shield paint — formulated for long-lasting wear and insulation — reduces maintenance needs and brings air conditioning expenses down by an average of 9%.

Unlike many other paints on the market, Alpha Shield also includes both a material and application warranty. Hegeman said the Series A funding reflects support for and excitement about the potential impact this technology can make on the industry. “Our latest round of funding has officially signaled that help is on the horizon for the industrial painting industry,” he said. “It’s not just about automation; it’s about redefining industry standards, addressing labor shortages, and introducing cost-effective solutions that break the mold of traditional painting.”

Another company offering robotic solutions is Dutch company Qlayers, for which BlastOne is distributing its painting robot in the United States. Photo courtesy of BlastOne.

The potential for automation and robotics also extends beyond painting applications. Dutch robotics company Qlayers recently introduced their mobile coating robots into the U.S. energy sector. Designed specifically for remote field projects in the oil and gas industry, the 10Q robots are the first of their kind, offering an automated solution for coating large-scale storage tanks.

Traditional hand-coating processes for steel tanks can present various physical challenges and safety concerns for contractors, including working at heights and in confined spaces where hazardous vapors may be present. Understaffed crews may also experience longer working hours, increased stress, strained resources, or project delays — each of which can increase the opportunity for error or safety incidents.

The 10Q robots help alleviate these challenges, prioritizing efficiency, consistency, and safety. Designed to spray multiple protective coating layers quickly and evenly, they ensure consistent thickness, deliver precise feathering between rows, and reduce overspray.

They can also lessen the amount of time crew members spend working at heights, significantly mitigating fall risks, while their eco-friendly technology — a patented spray shielding system — reduces the release of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and microplastics into the environment.

Distribution in the United States was made possible through an exclusive partnership with BlastOne International. The partnership signals an exciting leap forward in industrial coating efficiency and safety, according to Matthew Rowland, CEO of BlastOne International. “The 10Q robots are not just innovative; they’re transformative for large tank coating projects in the U.S.,” he said in a press release.

The partnership agreement was signed during the grand opening of BlastOne’s Houston office in 2023, making the robots available for both purchase and rental throughout the United States.

RBW Enterprises is another company in this area, offering a line of surface prep remote-operated equipment called the FasterBlaster for use on steel surfaces, such as the vertical walls of a tank and the exterior surfaces of pipe.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the roundup article within the 2024 Steel Surfaces Supplement, which can be read in its entirety here.

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