Automation in the painting trade is, as in almost all industries, a big topic. Some research institutes, universities and private investors are currently working on projects to automate the painting industry through robots that can undertake painting work. Interesting, but how realistic is it to automate in the painting industry? What are the new developments and what are the prototypes? Which technical approaches are being pursued and is there a realistic probability of painting robot being introduced into the painting market? What effect would it have on the painting trade in case of a successful market launch? To answer these questions and more, lets start with an example – here we have the Hercules 10 drone with spray equipment.
Some projects and developments have been made public and information including first pictures and videos are available. With that news in min, in this article we look at the possibilities and problems should such a device be launched commercially. In addition, we estimate the possible consequences for the painting industry. This is purely hypothetical and a value-free consideration under the assumption that the development of a functioning painting robot succeeds.
Research projects on automated painting work
Efforts are currently being made at various universities and research institutions to automate the painting trade. Here is an example from the Nanyang Technological University. The Institute of Robotics is working on a mobile paint spraying system that can reach walls and surfaces up to a height of 10 meters with its arm.
There are several other projects here, such as Hubert Palfinger Technologies GmbH, which can coat ships with an area output of up to 1400 m² per hour. Another project is currently recruiting sponsors, the Mist Lab of the University of Waterloo in Canada with its robot named Maverick.
Drone or telescopic arm – different approaches and technical solutions
The projects mentioned operate from the ground and work with a telescopic arm for coating surfaces. There is a second approach, whereby drones are combined with a sprayer to coat walls and other surfaces flexibly and at high altitude. In both cases, airless spray technology is usually used. That is, a paint sprayer is mounted on a robot or a threat. The robot or drone then provides mobility and positioning to the surface. Here are some older pictures from a test by the Appelix team with a drone-based system.
In addition to the company Appelix, some universities and research institutes are working on flying systems that combine drones and sprayers.
Current problems in the development of an automated painter system
There are still many problems in the development of a painting robot and so far no system is in the market meets the requirements of the painting industry. The main problems can be summarized as follows:
- Always changing- and individual working conditions
- Orientation in the room and on the surface
- Simple function and operation
- Paint supply
- Color fogging and accuracy of paint application
- Economic factors
Problem 1 – Always changing -and individual working conditions
Automated painting systems have long been used in the automotive industry. These systems are precisely matched to the components to be painted, meaning that the workflow repeats itself thousands of times over and over again. Things look different in the painting trade. Every apartment, every facade is different. The gutter, the window frame and the front door should of course not be coated with paint. The robot should recognize which areas should be coated and which should not. This can be done by data entry, but ideally it should be done automatically to simplify the workflow. This makes the work highly complicated, and costly for a robot to replicate,
Problem 2 – Orientation in the room and on the surface
In order to recognize which areas should be coated and which not, the painter robot must be able to orientate himself in space. He must understand which areas should be provided with color and which must be left out. This requires sensors, a camera system and appropriate software for processing this information. In addition, this system must work accurately to the millimeter and error-free.
Problem 3 – Simple function and operation
Another problem of the developers is the ease of use, since if the system is too complex, it will not prevail in the market. This first factor is the handling, thus the input of the information and thus the control of the system. But besides the handling, we also have the structure, the transport, the effort for the maintenance, care and cleaning of the painting robot.
Problem 4 – Ink supply
The ink supply is a problem especially with drone-based systems. Due to the power of current drone systems, only a certain amount of color can be absorbed, so it must be refueled regularly. There are approaches to provide the drone via a hose with paint and a cable with a hose to simplify this process. However, this limits range and maneuverability.
Problem 5 – Color fogging and inking accuracy
Most development approaches rely on Airles technology in order to spray the paint. The color is atomized, becoming a spray pattern, a millimeter accurate order of the color is not possible. Even with traditional applications with an airless device, areas that should not be sprayed must be masked. When applied outdoors, this problem is exacerbated by wind action. This is a particular problem with drones as they move freely in the air. The flight path of the painting drone should therefore be as stable as possible. In addition, the rotors provide air turbulence, which can affect the spray pattern and the paint application.
Problem 6 – Economic factors
The developers will have to bring a painting robot onto the market, which solves all the problems mentioned and can be priced reasonably well so that it becomes an attractive option, at a lower cost. Only then will painters be ready to invest in new technology.
Interesting, but how realistic is it?
These problems are not easy and it is unclear whether developers will be able to offer solutions in the foreseeable future. They are not where they want to go yet. The control is still not practical, even the handling is not. The system of the Nanyang Technological University weighs about 1500 kg, rather unsuitable to renovate a three-room apartment on the third floor without elevator. Also, the system used by the company Hubert Palfinger Technologies GmbH in the shipping industry is far too large for craft work and takes several hours for the establishment and the structure to complete. Even with drone systems, there are still many questions to answer. So it remains to be seen what the innovators from the research laboratories and universities will present to us in the next few years.
What does this mean for the industry and the working world of the painter?
What does it mean for the profession of the painter, if it should succeed to find a workable and economical solution to the question of the automation of painter activities? It would probably have an impact on the entire industry and greatly change the job, workflow and painter requirements.
Change of everyday work and new tasks for painters
In addition to specialized painting, the operation, maintenance and care of the technique would probably be one of the painter’s new main tasks. Ensuring and monitoring the function of the robots and the supply of paint would be part of the new field of work. In addition, the technology has to be transported to the construction site and set up. In case of faults, errors must be found and eliminated.
What training exists in the technical field
These new requirements would require additional technical knowledge and training which would have to be adapted accordingly. Presumably, manufacturers of automated painting systems would then offer training or send technicians to the site in the event of breakdowns.
What does this mean for the job situation in the painting trade?
We can only speculate, but a functioning system would mean a painting trade revolution. However the barriers to entry are multiple and difficult to overcome. A paint robot would be accepted by the market only if a company can do so with consistent or better quality significantly more than economical work done by a human painter. Should it be possible, more work would be possible at a lower cost and less staff. That would mean less need for personnel in the industry.
For employers this is certainly interesting, since the personnel costs cause the largest cost block in a painting business. To put it bluntly: shortage of skilled workers, job tips, loss of work due to illness, holidays are all problems, problems which would dissolve or disappear with the introduction of a painting robot. Understandably, this is a threatening scenario for workers, as the new technology may endanger their employment. Here the topic of automation gains a social-economic component, which should definitely be considered. A job means that rent is paid and food is on the table.
Should an automated painter system be introduced, it will surely be a gradual introduction in the market. First, for simpler tasks such as large areas such as roof coating or the coating of industrial buildings or halls, since this would be the most economical use of the systems. Over time, the systems could then be improved, so perhaps more complex tasks can be solved. This development would probably not be abrupt on the job market, but take over, over a longer period of time.
In addition, a separation and specialization in the market can be expected. Specialized and high quality technical work would continue to be done by hand, by professionals. While simpler work could be done by machines.
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