11 October 2019

Preparing for the Robot Revolution

It’s not a question of whether robotics will change the face of inspection and maintenance. It’s a question of when. And, according to Stefano Stramigioli, professor of Advanced Robotics and Chair of the Robotics and Mechatronics Group at the University of Twente, the companies that pioneer research into industrial robots today, will be the market leaders of tomorrow.

What game-changing opportunities can robotics provide in the inspection and maintenance industry?

There are so many ways that Robotics will soon improve production and performance. But in maintenance and inspection, there are many specific benefits. Robots can reach locations that are difficult – or impossible – for humans to reach. But they can also operate in conditions too hazardous for human workers. The impact on safety can be significant.

What’s more, robots can precisely and swiftly localize problems in industry equipment, and make maintenance much more efficient and cost-effective. Instead of regularly scheduled maintenance managed by humans, the robots can move around large structures and alert human teams to real-time issues that will soon require intervention. They can predict failures and confirm safety. Which in turn can decrease shutdown time and reduce maintenance activities to only those that are truly necessary. Use of robots creates significant cost-savings over the current model, and an increase in operation time.

What are you working on now that can revolutionize our industry in the near future?

One of the very exciting developments is a robot that can be deployed to inspect pipes from the inside. No human can crawl inside those pipes, but we’re developing a robot that can scan and inspect pipes for abnormalities and identify weaknesses. When we talk technology, everyone thinks about AI and data. But they forget the physics and the physical world with which they need to interact to get that data. The Robotics we’re working on are meant to be applied in the physical reality of the industry, and help make real advancement.

Furthermore, many enterprises are using drones to achieve better, faster and more accurate inspections. But currently, drones can only provide an image, a visual representation. We can add sensors to the drones, so that they both fly and touch; take measurements and provide real-time data about the area they are inspecting. That will again change the game for companies who have the knowledge to put it to work.

With all the technology currently available, what are the key success factors for actually implementing robotics in the industry, and using them to their full potential? 

The technology is there, but what we need now is intensive Research and Development into how to get the robots to do the right thing at the right time. Robots will change the world – this we know for sure. But the only way to ensure that they’re utilized to their full potential is to experiment now. The enterprises that are willing to invest in Robotics development now will almost certainly be market leaders when Robotics becomes commonplace in the industry.

The research we are doing now will benefit the entire industry. It’s about creating reliable, robust robots that act and behave in the ways we require them to. That requires step-by-step deployment in non-critical segments so that we can test the technology in real circumstances. The pioneering companies who make these advancements possible and help create reliable robots will surely be the most successful when the technology is fully mature. After all, they’ll have a head start on how it all works.

What are some barriers to implementing robotics in inspection and maintenance?

There are quite a few, to be honest. As usual, it will take some time for legislation to catch up with technological advancement. In particular, the petrochemical industry faces some regulatory barriers when it comes to using Robotics in areas with flammable or explosive materials. But here again, the more we test and use Robotics in safe environments to optimize their performance and make them entirely reliable, the sooner we’ll be able to prove their safe use in dangerous environments.

There are human barriers as well. Of course, many people feel that implementing Robotics will eliminate the need for human workers, but that’s simply not true. I predict that for the next 30 to 50 years, there will be very little – if any – loss of jobs for humans. The implementation of robots will simply allow humans to transfer to another job. Robots will allow humans to take safer, more technical jobs, like that of an operator. By the time robots are so prolific that they can entirely replace humans, we’ll be in an entirely new socioeconomic structure and politics needs to see and adapt on time. It won’t just be production that changes, but everything. Still, that’s a long way off. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

What about industry players who want to get involved in robotics, but don't know where to start?

This is the most important reason why we have Digital Innovation Hubs that bring together engineers, developers, service providers and end-user enterprises. Everyone brings something to the table. If we don’t connect with the industry and the service providers, who will actually implement and use the technology, it ends up dying in the lab, and no one wants that. But when knowledge institutes, like University of Twente, partner with service providers like Stork and their customers, great advancements can happen.

Without industry partners willing to take the risk, try to test these technologies, no true industry advancements can happen. We need people who can tell us what the specific needs in the industry are, and what the specific challenges are. And together, we can build and test the solutions. We know this because in industries where robots are being used more regularly, we got there because the end users were closely involved in development. Take the medical industry, for example. We couldn’t create surgical robots without in-depth involvement from surgeons.

What is your vision for the future?

I often say, “Physics can predict the future, but Robotics will make it.” The sooner the industry realizes that Robots are on their way, the better prepared they will be when they arrive. It’s not a question of whether Robotics will be part of the Maintenance and Inspection landscape. It is merely a question of whether companies will get on board now and be leaders of the future, or whether they will hesitate, and potentially get left behind.

The author

Professor Of Advanced Robotics And Chair Of The Robotics And Mechatronics Group At The University Of Twente (Nl)

Stefano Stramigioli

Stefano Stramigioli is professor of Advanced Robotics and Chair of the Robotics and Mechatronics Group at the University of Twente (NL). He received an M.Sc. with honours (cum laude) and a PhD. with honors (cum laude) in 1998. He is an IEEE Fellow, ERC Advance Grant Recipient and was recently nominated as a member of the Dutch Academy of Science (KHMW). He is serving a second term as Vice President of Research at euRobotics. He was Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Robotics and Automation magazine, an AdCom member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, and recipient of – among others, the IEEE-RAS Distinguished Service award and the euRobotics 2016 Tech Transfer award. Among his many areas of interest and applications, he specializes in robotics application in Maintenance and Inspection, as well as the multiple award-winning robotic bird, ‘Robird’.

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