There has been a significant amount of discussion regarding future workforce development challenges for the protective coatings industry. Could part of the solution come from technology?
Bob Dahlstrom, founder and CEO of aerial robotics company Apellix, believes companies similar to his may have solutions. A serial entrepreneur, Dahlstrom is passionate about designing and creating software-controlled robotic systems that help 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.
To celebrate 2022 National Robotics Week, Dahlstrom joined our CoatingsPro Interview series to explore new robotics trends. Topics include industry and company developments, feedback from users in the field, workforce and safety 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 portions, and listen to the full episode below.
Q: Give us some background on National Robotics Week. Why is this 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 more than 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 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 has progressed a long way in the past few years, and you won at 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: 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.