Abrasive Blasting Robots Increase Quality and Safety for Workers

By
EN
Emily Newton
on April 7, 2022
Sandblasting of metal structures at construction site

Abrasive blasting involves using compressed air to shoot a grit at a surface to clean it, such as to remove contaminants or old coatings. This technique also works for texturizing poured concrete or changing the texture of a substrate. People have become increasingly interested in robotic blasting technologies. 

That’s primarily because the traditional method includes significant hazards. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that this technique poses several simultaneous risks to workers. 

Many of those threats come from dust associated with the blasted particles, which could get into the lungs and cause damage. Additionally, problems can also arise due to substrate coatings. Perhaps the goal is to use abrasive blasting to take off layers of lead-based paint. If so, the process can generate particles that could interfere with the nervous system. 

Worker with protective mask works a bridge with sandblast. The sandblasting process

 

There are also risks associated with the blasted particles. They could hurt the operator or anyone in the vicinity if misdirected. It’s not yet a widespread practice to use robotic blasting technologies. However, the decision-makers who choose to take that route could find that the process becomes safer and provides higher-quality outcomes. 

Using Robotics With Little or No Programming Knowledge

Many people may like the idea of using robots for abrasive blasting needs, but the assumption that they need to program the machine could make the idea less appealing. Luckily, complex programming is not always a necessity. Many industrial robots are increasingly user-friendly, making them appeal to a larger potential marketplace segment. 

A blasting robot named the Alpha 1 was marketed as the first machine of its kind that did not need prior programming to work. Instead, the bot featured a 3D camera that allowed it to create a blasting plan without human intervention. It’s not always possible to run a blasting robot without doing any kind of programming first. However, people should not let their lack of experience in that area discourage them from potentially investing in these robots. 

 

It’s easier to focus on the expected positive outcomes when models enable shortening or eliminating time spent on programming. The main advantage of this setup is that it keeps operators out of the most dangerous areas. There’s a much lower likelihood of getting injured when supervising the robot from a greater distance. 

Plus, robots excel at repetitive tasks. Even the most detail-oriented people eventually become fatigued, which could sacrifice quality and elevate safety risks. Bringing in robotic equipment could target those challenges.

Achieving Consistency on Massive Jobs

Bringing robots into the workforce often results in reliable outcomes without putting workers under too much strain. Decision-makers at an automobile plant purchased collaborative robots to reduce the musculoskeletal risks posed by some assembly tasks. 

Excessive stress on the body can also occur during abrasive blasting tasks. They’re especially likely when working on large structures. Robots were used to sandblast Australia’s Sydney Harbor Bridge. Greg Peters, the project’s engineering design manager, said, “Due to the fatigue while sandblasting, even experienced workers are unable to achieve such consistent results [as has been the result of the robots doing the blasting].”

Sydney harbour bridge looking up from under with financial district and opera house in distance

He continued, “Operating the system could not be simpler: The lightweight robots are manually positioned on a simple rail system. They automatically scan the steel structure, generating a 3D map. Then the work begins.” The automated scanning is a time-saver, too, since the bridge features 485,000 square meters of steel. Sandblasting is part of the ongoing corrosion protection the structure requires. 

schunk-sabre-grit-blaster

Before using the robots, the job required up to three people to hang and move in ergonomically unfriendly positions. However, with robots helping, one individual can supervise and operate up to two machines. Someone is also tasked with more-detailed work after the robots finish. 

Pursuing Continuous Improvement

Using robotic blasting technologies is not the only way to make the process safer. Some products on the market are specifically designed to produce up to 92% less dust than traditional dry-blasting techniques. Improving a process is all about identifying the associated shortcomings and exploring options for overcoming them. 

In one instance, researchers developed a robot that engaged in abrasive blasting with cornstarch to remove paint from aircraft. Conventional methods of doing the job usually involve manual grinders or harsh chemicals. Those options could be physically taxing or dangerous for the people who use them. 

ecostrippair-ganz

The team opted for a semi-automated method. Marcel Honegger, who led the project, explained, “The degree of precision necessary calls for the use of robots, of course. However, instead of programming a fully automatic robot, we have created a system of collaboration where the workers use the robot as an intelligent tool, like an extended high-precision arm, so to speak. Thanks to its high precision, the system only removes the paint, while the component’s surface underneath remains intact.”

Honegger continued, “What’s more, this procedure is also more efficient and ecological than conventional methods. No chemical agents are used — the appliance relies only on cornstarch as blasting material. The starch is contained in a closed circuit, passing through the nozzle several times. Finally, end-users will also profit from the new system since it implies much less physical strain than conventional paint removal.”

Increasing Capacity While Keeping Quality High

Robotic blasting technologies can work well for helping companies achieve scalability without negatively impacting quality. Such was the case with Louisiana’s C&C Marine and Repair, which uses abrasive blasting on barges. Tony Cibilich, the company’s president and owner, says the original intention was not to focus on abrasive blasting with robots. However, plans changed after representatives learned about what was possible from a Finnish company specializing in blasting robots for rail cars and containers. 

“… We quickly realized there was an opportunity to adapt this technology for the barge industry. We were determined to create a process of blasting and painting barges that would be better for the environment, safer for our employees and more efficient,” Cibilich said.

C&C ended up with a custom-made robotic and mobile blasting unit specifically designed for the marine industry. Cibilich said the new setup has doubled the company’s capacity and even meant it could work on things other than barges, including structural components and assemblies. The company uses steel grit as its primary blast media. Representatives found it caused superior paint adhesive to steel, resulting in fewer paint jobs needed during the barge’s lifetime. 

cc-paint-and-blast-building-3

C&C also operates its robotic blasting unit indoors. This stops the blast media from ending up in the adjacent waterways. Additionally, an air filtration system captures more than 99% of the blast particles. This makes it safer for workers by preventing accidental inhalation and allows the company to reuse the steel blast media approximately 150 times rather than sending it to landfills. 

The team members operating the blasting robot do so from inside a separate, air-conditioned control room. Moreover, there is no longer a need to set up scaffolding for blasting jobs at a height. Instead, the operators can maneuver the robot to the required level, saving time and improving overall safety. 

Robotic Blasting Technologies Enhance Workflows

These examples show how using robots for abrasive blasting can keep people safer and improve outcomes. Applying robotic blasting technologies requires time and money to do correctly, but the payoffs are often substantial.

 

Emily Newton, Revolutionized

Emily Newton is an industrial journalist with over four years of experience. As Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, she regularly covers this industry and how technology contributes to its evolution.

 

*This article is the work of the guest author shown above. The guest author is solely responsible for the accuracy and the legality of their content. The content of the article and the views expressed therein are solely those of this author and do not reflect the views of Matmatch or of any present or past employers, academic institutions, professional societies, or organizations the author is currently or was previously affiliated with.

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