Article in OGV Energy magazine: Advancing real-world deployment of Robotics

With the acceleration towards digital transformation and the transition to a low carbon and circular society, robotics for Inspection & Maintenance (I&M) are becoming increasingly embedded in the overall digitisation strategies of energy companies.

Environmental advantages and safety performance are drivers for the increased use of robotics, as well as benefits such as operational efficiency and cost reduction associated with maintenance and unplanned shutdowns.

The SPRINT Robotics Collaborative is an industrydriven initiative that promotes the development, availability and application of robotics techniques in technical inspections, maintenance, and operation of capital-intensive infrastructure. SPRINT Robotics was launched in 2015 by several large asset owners from the energy industry to encourage the worldwide use of robotics for inspection, cleaning and maintenance. The collaborative aims to achieve field use of I&M robotics of capital-intensive infrastructure assets on a large scale to address immediate needs and long-term industry priorities. In moving towards this goal, SPRINT Robotics helps connect the value chain, develop best practices, fast-track innovations, remove barriers to entry, and encourage knowledge sharing. These efforts enable end users to reduce cost, increase quality, and control the risk of inspection activities.

SPRINT Robotics has become an internationally recognised platform for I&M Robotics with a support base of nearly 100 organisations globally. As of date, the member companies of the collaborative consist of 21 Participants (asset owners and operators) and 72 Associate Participants (service providers, technology providers, manufacturers and research institutes), with three regional chapters around the world: Asia-Pacific, Europe, and North America.

One major focus of SPRINT Robotics is to engage and bring together the whole value chain, from end users to service and technology providers. SPRINT Robotics strongly focuses on the value that robotics for I&M can deliver to end-user organisations, i.e. the operators and owners of capital-intensive infrastructure. Robots are a means to an end and not a goal in themselves. Dr. Tjibbe Bouma, Chairman SPRINT Robotics: “A unique aspect of SPRINT Robotics is that we start from the asset operator perspective. Robotic developers and suppliers come to us exactly for that reason, we connect real world problems to potential robotic solutions.”

Connecting the value chain

SPRINT Robotics organises a wide variety of events throughout each year: from webinars and seminars to regional roadshows and the annual World Conference for Inspection and Maintenance Robotics. Within the collaborative are a number of committees and groups: the Program Committee (asset owners and operators), Action Groups focused on specific asset classes (Storage Tanks, Pressure Vessels, Process Piping and Remote Operators), the Task Force for Cleaning and Fabric Maintenance, and three Regional Chapters. Each group actively addresses specific challenges, initiating projects, publications, and activities to drive progress forward.

In 2020, SPRINT Robotics had a substantial increase in virtual events. In addition to webinars, seminars and regular committee meetings, this past year members attended a.o. Virtual Showcases, Virtual Roadshows and had access to the Global Inspection, Maintenance & Cleaning Week, five days dedicated to different asset classes. The final day of the Global IMC Week was a highly successful session on Clean Energy, a focal point for many energy companies today.

The SPRINT Robotics initiatives are integral in connecting the value chain. The roadshows are a prime example of how SPRINT Robotics brings end users together with technology suppliers. This series of events brings robotics straight to the doorstep of end users and provides a platform for direct engagement. The roadshows help to create awareness of the existence of these tools, showcase technology in interactive manner, spark ideas and dialogue to overcome specific challenges.

SPRINT Robotics continues to grow at a rapid pace, not only in numbers, but also with the expansion to other market sectors. The program at the last World Conference for Inspection and Maintenance Robotics was a good reflection of this, covering a broad scope ranging from petrochemical and energy to public and water infrastructure, aerospace, subsea and next generation technologies.

Looking forward

Technology keeps evolving at a very rapid pace, limited more by the ability of society to absorb it than by technological advances. Robotic hardware technically suitable for I&M is becoming readily available, even though important capability gaps remain. SPRINT Robotics sees the focus shifting from robotic hardware to embedding robotics into end-to-end solutions and global availability. For many end-user organisations, robotics has become part of the digital strategy. Elements such as operational deployment planning and management, data analytics and AI, autonomy, establishing a reliable supply chain, expanding capabilities for I&M, are becoming more central.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted normal operations throughout the industry. Not only did the pandemic highlight vulnerabilities in supply chains, but it also demonstrated that manufacturing industries reliance on human presence in facilities is a risk to continuity. This has provided a whole new dimension to the importance of automated solutions, remote operation and robotics, to reduce the dependence on human physical presence in plants. This presents a significant opportunity for I&M robotics as it can help solve these problems.

In the light of climate change and the importance of sustainability, most countries in the world have recognised the importance of reducing CO2 emissions. New and rapidly growing industries and their supply chains focused on clean energy and the transition to a low carbon are emerging. SPRINT Robotics aims to create synergies between sectors, share knowledge and best practices, as well as connecting leading experts in the respective industries.