There is no doubt that the modern production floor is changing rapidly, as the so-called “megatrends” and convergence of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence enhance the manufacturing sector to produce additional value. Most people are familiar with robots on the manufacturing line, but there can also be benefits in using robots in the maintenance department.
There are several causes driving this trend, similar to those in other groups of the business. First, repetitive and monotonous maintenance tasks are ripe for automation. Just like in production, these tasks can be turned over to robots, freeing up technicians to focus on the most important breakdowns, and more importantly, the root cause analysis.
Second, robots can be used to take on high-risk maintenance activities, or activities that are very difficult for human workers. Maintenance workers in industrial environments can thus reduce their exposure to dangerous situations or environments.
Third, many companies are looking forward and using robots and AI to become more predictive to prevent maintenance or repair issues. With AI tools, many companies are now predicting when their equipment will fail, adopting predictive maintenance programs.
The following are some specific examples and robots that are exploring the use of robotics in maintenance.
Automation and inspection
The risk-adverse airline industry has generally been slow to adapt automation tasks. However, some forward-looking companies have begun to make strides. Lutfhansa Technik is using robots to inspect for cracks on engine components. Previously this process involved using dyes by hand – a messy and tedious process. There is a general recognition that these tasks are performed better by robots. There are other robots used in Lufthansa’s MRO process – component repair, cockpit control testing, and an automated scarfing system called CAIRE.
There has also been some progress in automobile maintenance. Roll-Royce is experimenting with flexible snake robots that can inspect engine lines and make patch repairs. These are robots that can accomplish tasks that humans cannot by reaching areas that are impossible for a person. These robots are the beginning of a transformation in engine maintenance.
Transportation companies are not the only area where inspections are being handed over to robots. Fraunhofer has developed several robot inspectors. For example, they have robots for sewer system inspections. In this case, the system cannot be shut down and drained for inspections, and the system itself is a potential health hazard for humans who enter it. Thus, robots can take on the undesirable task of inspecting the sewer line.
There are many analogous scenarios where robots have begun to perform inspection services. Sandia has partnered with International Climbing Machines and Dophitech to develop a climbing robot. This robot closely Inspects wind turbine blades by climbing across the surfaces.
On the same note, there are numerous examples of tank inspection robots. Any facility with hazardous tanks understands the rigmarole and risk of sending people into a tank. A robot inspector is a much better option.
The maintenance assistant
Naturally, all these robots need to be properly maintained themselves. Enter the maintenance robot designed to maintain robots! Secondhands is a robot designed to assist human technicians in the maintenance of other robots.
The concept is that the robot will recognize when the technician needs help – a tool, assistance lifting something heavy, or precision in a technique. This robot will augment the human technician and is designed to make their life easier.
AI for predictive maintenance
Another trend is the use of artificial intelligence to aid in the planning of maintenance activities. The US military is piloting the use of AI to maintain its high-priced assets. This venture collects data from sensors and combines that with historical trends to predict when a vehicle will experience a failure, which is just a fancy way to say they are focusing on predictive maintenance.
Lockheed Martin has is working with similar concepts on the F-16. They have seen extended life of their aircraft using AI software. When the failures can be predicted accurately, they can be prepared for and mitigated. This process saves time and hassle for the maintenance and operations team.
These examples only begin the discussion on the topic of AI and robotics in maintenance. There are numerous examples of other forays into the area. Whether driven by efficiency, risk reduction, predictive analytics, or a combination of these reasons, robots are guiding maintenance into the future.