Painting Robots Deployed Amid Labor Shortages

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2023


As labor shortages persist across the construction and maintenance industries, one startup company in the U.S. is putting its robots to use to get painting jobs completed.

According to a report from CNBC, PaintJet, a Henderson, Tennessee-based company, has been able to employ its proprietary robotic application technology to coat more than 1.5 million square feet of building surfaces over the past three years.

About the Robots

PaintJet’s CEO and co-founder Nick Hegeman told CNBC that he started conceptualizing the robot to keep up with growing demand for painting services in the face of a lack of qualified workers to get the jobs done.

“With painting, the labor shortage hits you right in the face. It was not so much a challenge to sell and book work, but it was always a challenge to do the work,” said Hegeman, a mechanical engineer by trade, as well as a former head of a CertaPro Painters franchise in Nashville.

“At one point, we were painting a 150,000-square-foot warehouse and I had to let go of a crew—it’s not ideal, but it happens. Then it was just myself and my wife painting a huge warehouse just to meet a customer deadline.”

Along with co-founders Steve Wasilowski and Sonia Chacko, Hegeman reportedly surveyed the market for existing equipment that had already been proven safe and widely used on painting jobs, and crafting his new technology around these proven methods.

PaintJet’s eventual design involved attaching modular robotic components to the basket of a “cherry picker” lift. This “end effector” reportedly includes surface-scanning cameras and sprayer jets that can apply coatings to one 50-square-foot section at a time. To move the end effector across the surface, PaintJet’s team of 20 employees use a remote control to operate the robot from the ground.

The company says that its process results in around 25% less paint being used than in a traditional application, which Hegeman says was one of the company’s main goals in creating the robotic system.

“Paint can be expensive when you’re using so much of it, and a lot of paints contain toxic chemicals that nobody wants to touch,” said Hegeman.

In addition to the robots, PaintJet also reportedly formulates and sells its own line of paints, including low-VOC formulations, anti-foulants to help ships ensure fuel efficiency and insulating systems that can help commercial buildings such as warehouses and data centers to save on heating and cooling costs.

PaintJet reportedly offers end-to-end service with its robots, instead of selling or renting its fleet out to construction crews. While construction companies and real estate developers make up the majority of PaintJet’s early customers, the company says it hopes to expand further into the quarter-trillion-dollar exterior painting sector. Hegeman also said that the company is working on developing the robot to handle more tasks, including pressure washing, caulking and sanding.

Ryan Gembala, the founder and managing partner of San Francisco-based robotics venture fund Pathbreaker—one of the early stage funders of PaintJet—told CNBC that the company could potentially benefit from various climate and infrastructure-focused bills and programs that have recently been introduced in the U.S.

“PaintJet is tapping into this $200 billion-plus paint market. And paint is everywhere! But the way it’s done today—it’s a service business where the employees are leaving. It’s just a very tough industry to maintain personnel-wise. This company has a novel tech approach that’s hard to replicate and they’re already exceeding customer expectations,” said Gembala.

Other Painting Robots

Late last year, French startup Les Companions demonstrated a collaborative painting robot prototype to customers across the United Kingdom.

Designed to spray paint up to 3.5 meters (just under 11.5 feet) and capable of moving around flat surfaces, Paco was the latest technology in a series of emerging robots capable of autonomous painting.

In terms of the technology’s hardware, the company shared that Paco is comprised of omnidirectional wheels, LiDAR laser optics, an elevator, a robotic arm, an airless sprayer and a 15-liter (roughly four-gallon) paint cartridge.

Paco’s LiDAR laser operates as a 3D scanner capable of creating a digital model of the space being painted with the help of a machine operator. Once the information is uploaded to Paco’s internal system, which the developer notes are easily programmable, it can then begin completing the paint job it’s been assigned. 

While the robot cannot move around surfaces that have a rise or drop in elevation, such as a ramp, hill or stairs, Les Companions notes that the robot moves well alongside human painters, leaving the more complicated and intricate paint tasks to their expertise.

Antoine Rennuit, who runs Les Companions, told The Sun, “Paco’s mission is to perform the most tedious, or least challenging tasks. But you still need a human touch.”

The report also shared that the startup has spent millions of dollars to invent the high-tech machine.

According to the Financial Times, Netherlands-based global coatings manufacturer AkzoNobel has also shared that it is backing the French startup to help make robo-painters a reality. Several years ago, the company collaborated with U.S.-based startup Appelix on a computer-controlled spray-painting drone.

The coatings giant believes that the adoption of more robotic and autonomous painting technology could help to alleviate the labor shortages being experienced by the painting and decorating industry, and ultimately delaying construction projects across the board.

And, in addition to backing Les Companions on this project, AkzoNobel has also reportedly called on the U.K. Government to address the worker shortages. In a Dulux survey of 348 industry members in 2022, 61% of U.K. painting and decorating businesses said they were struggling to find workers with the required skills.

Les Companions said that it aimed to launch the droid, known as “Paco,” for commercial use within the next year if it gained enough interest from its pitch as an assistant for construction workers.

   

Tagged categories: Antifoulants; Asia Pacific; Business matters; Coating Application; Coating Application - Commercial; Coating Materials; Coating Materials - Commercial; Commercial Buildings; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Exterior painting; Insulating coatings; Labor; Latin America; North America; Paint application; Paint application equipment; PaintSquare; PaintSquare App - Commercial; Program/Project Management; Robotics; Technology; Tools & Equipment; Tools & Equipment - Commercial; Z-Continents

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