Inspection work and the data acquisition part of reliability is seen as a set of dangerous, dirty, and dull tasks that often end up being quite repetitive.
This has certainly been true in the past, but increasingly our inspection teams get to work with robotics, AI, and other emerging technologies to generate the data sets that are going to define the next generation of integrity and asset management.
One of the groups leading this charge is the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. ARM is accelerating the development and adoption of robotic technologies already utilized in inspection activities today, and they're only going to become more widespread in the near future.
I had the pleasure of talking about ARM's impact on the industry with ARM Project Manager, Chris Adams.
Below are excerpts from our conversation. Listen to the full podcast here!
Can you give us a little bit of a lead-up to how you joined ARM?
I was a project engineer for a few years and I moved into a great role as a development engineer.
I learned about ARM and thought, “This would be a great company to work for. They're really trying to push technology to the next level, increase the adoption of robotics, and make it known that robots aren’t taking away jobs.”
One of their mission statements is to remove the humans from the dull, the dirty and the dangerous jobs, right?
For example, if you’re doing a coatings project, you’re spraying paint or chemicals and you're wearing a hazmat suit to make sure that you're safe. Well, let a robot do that!
The human can be out of harm’s way, ensuring the robot is lined up correctly and working properly. They don’t have to worry about the chemicals on their clothes or if they’re going to have lung problems 10 or 20 years down the road.
I thought that was a great mission and something I wanted to be a part of. So I applied and before I knew it, I was employed at ARM.
That really hits close to home for me, too. The first 15 years of my career was in the field as an operator or as a manager of operators and technicians. Robotics makes such a huge difference in those dirty, dangerous jobs that you mentioned.
That's been a mission of mine as well. Not just giving people more comfortable tasks, but the inherent speed and accuracy that can come from the adoption of robotic platforms.
So within ARM, what part of the portfolio do you oversee?
I'm mainly on the technology side. ARM's broken into two segments, technology and EWD, which is our Education and Workforce Development. About 90% of my programs and projects are on the technology side. Those can be anything from companies trying to create a software that allows robots from different manufacturers to communicate to each other.
Some are inspection based where a robot uses machine learning and AI to inspect the stator blade of an aircraft engine and determine if there's a defect.
On the EWD side too, I had a great project with RECF. They're the Robotics, Education and Competition Foundation. They do a lot of the Vex Robotics competitions throughout the US and internationally.
So taking a look at ARM's mission and what it’s trying to do across various industries, are you looking at impacting change in the near term or is this more longer term change, also how are you measuring that success?
A little bit of both. We fund projects based on their Technical Readiness Levels (TRL). The only projects that we can fund and get involved with are from level four to seven.
Four is that experimental part where an idea has been vetted a little. They've done some groundwork, they've tested some stuff out, on the software side, they have some initial libraries or code.
One the robotic side, they've been building out machine learning databases, they have the initial robot in-house and they're learning how to manipulate it and stuff like that. The second part is that the robot can be demonstrated in a production environment, but it's not production ready.
Typically, in two to three years, we'd like to see the projects starting to make it into the industry and production facilities but that comes down to the investment from the company as well.
We measure our successes through tech transition plans with our teams and partner organizations. At the end of our projects, we say, “Where do you see this project in six months? Where do you see this project in 12 months? What are the stages that are going to get this technology in a production facility?"
The government gauges our success as well to ensure that we're funding projects that will make an impact down the road, not just projects that sound cool.
Great, it sounds like it's really client-dependent or problem-dependent.
So, I want to talk about the common perception that robotics are going to displace a big portion of the workforce and that the motivations of the two are at odds with each other.
What are your thoughts on how these concepts intertwine?
As I said before, one of the things ARM really focuses on is removing people from the dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs, right?
There's been multiple studies that have shown that in the next decade that there's going to be over 4 million available manufacturing jobs. So these are showing that up to 2 million of those jobs are going to possibly go unfilled.
What I believe personally is that robots aren't taking away jobs, they're actually creating jobs and they're going to fill the unfilled jobs.
One of our heavy focuses is teaching the workforce how to easily integrate robots into their facility and maintain them.
Is there something that ergonomically is an issue that they don't want to be doing, like bending down? Or do they need to walk around the facility to get other parts? Maybe there’s an injury risk as well. We want to make sure it's safer for that person.
We've also recently launched roboticscareer.org which is a nationwide database of training programs, all the way from micro-credentials to PhD programs. We have upwards of 1,300 organizations on that website and we're approaching 10,000 individual training programs that are offered by those organizations.
It’s a great resource if your organization wants to learn how to use a robot, you can go to a training session or if you want to take another step in your career and challenge yourself, we've established these building blocks to get you there.
I think there's a real niche where people that have been doing the tasks in the field will be a necessary part of integrating these systems into those roles.
There's absolutely a need for people that can straddle those two mindsets and bring them together, productively.
ARM’s involvement in the Pittsburgh community is definitely exemplary. Thank you guys very much for that. Is there something that Pittsburgh has to teach other cities about growing a real culture of technology?
Something that's very unique to Pittsburgh is how collaborative the city is.
Also, you have universities like CMU, which has spun out a bunch of different robotics companies and then you have the larger, established companies as well.
Meanwhile, startups are looking for spaces with low costs, and the appropriate facilities, structures and buildings to be able to develop their technology which Pittsburgh has to offer.
I saw a map recently of the robotics companies dotted across the city and it’s absolutely incredible. I don't know if we could just copy and paste that to a different city, and say
“Hey, let’s do what Pittsburgh's doing.”
Pittsburgh has done a really great job of reinventing itself. I was born in the eighties and lived here my entire life.
No one knew what would happen after steel went away. But we reinvented ourselves as this technology hub with countless opportunities for recent graduates.
It's been great to see the city revitalize itself.
Pittsburgh's really playing the long game by taking steps now and investing in the future.
And speaking of the long view of the situation, ARM is very notable for bringing back or emphasizing the re-introduction of manufacturing to the Heartland.
Is there something that you guys are doing or is there some advice you could give other companies to help them go down a similar path?
One piece of advice is that we really need to onshore our manufacturing.
We were all caught off guard by COVID and there was such a rapid pull to manufacture PPE and supplies.
It may sound obvious but the manufacturers know where the gaps are.
Chris, as you're looking into the future, is there any specific technology that has your attention?
We’re funding a few projects right now with swarm robotics, which is basically more than one robot solving a problem.
Instead of a single robot picking up a piece of carbon fiber and laying it down, two robots are working in harmony.
Some projects involve drone swarms. For example, a group of drones could be sent out to capture images of infrastructure, let’s say, a Navy ship.
They capture high definition pictures, and they stitch the images together to create a really crisp, clean model of that ship. When it comes time for maintenance planning and repairs, you have a digital twin of that ship.
The same process can be used for power plants. Let’s say maybe it’s 60 years old and the file is corrupt or incompatible. You can’t spend time trying to recreate every little intricate detail about the infrastructure.
Now you can just send drones to take images and create models.
The future is having adaptive robots that can be used for a multitude of different tasks.
Being able to capture the visual data and using 3D modeling to create digital twins-- that's becoming an integral part of the reliability industry.