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Industrial Robots Forge Ahead

| By Mary Page Bailey

Performance improvements in robotics technologies for manufacturing and energy operations are leading to greater productivity, cost savings and safety improvements

In the chemical process industries (CPI), mobile robots, often in conjunction with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), are currently being deployed for a handful of tasks — usually those that present safety risk to workers, or that are overly expensive for plant personnel to undertake. The most common task that may come to mind is the simple movement of inventory, such as chemical tanks, between locations, but robotic devices are also becoming increasingly involved in tasks like equipment inspections and waste cleanup. This article looks at some of the advancements in robotics technologies that are being applied in CPI facilities.


Versatility and adaptability

“Robots can perform operator rounds with many human-like capabilities, such as hearing, seeing, smelling and feeling. Robots do this by taking photos or videos, recording sound and vibration signatures and detecting hot and cold spots via thermal-imaging cameras,” states Sandra Fabiano, the robotics engineering manager of Yokogawa Corp. of America (Sugar Land, Tex.;

Yokogawa recognized that there is no one perfect mobile robot for these tasks — those in the market offer similar solutions, but all possess different capabilities and environmental limits. With all this in mind, Yokogawa identified the need for a fleet-management platform that can handle any mobile robot and be integrated into other plant automation systems. “Since user requirements vary widely, the only way to meet all the needs is to offer robots from different vendors. For instance, we may use one type of robot for indoor settings where stair traversal is necessary, and another in hazardous areas, which require explosion-proof equipment,” says Fabiano.

In March, Yokogawa launched its Oprex Robot Management Core software application, which integrates the management of several types of robots to perform inspection tasks. Fabiano added, “The platform provides a common user interface, data storage for all vendor-robot data, and the ability to use in-house or third-party AI services to integrate with industrial automation systems.” Currently, the robots that are supported include Boston Dynamics’ Spot and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ EX ROVR.

Robots also add another layer of convenience to help alleviate certain workforce concerns — namely, the “great crew change,” where companies expect to lose over half of their workers to retirement in the coming years. “Robots use artificial intelligence to meet customer requirements, such as distinguishing between safe and hazardous conditions and detecting anomalies to bring a process back within specification. The accuracy of AI and consistency of the data capture by robots are essential to providing effective knowledge for operational efficiency and production quality,” says Penny Chen, Yokogawa’s senior principal technology strategist.

Yokogawa has worked on several proof-of-concepts using mobile robots. Last year, the company announced a project to deploy quadruped robots to perform plant inspections and maintenance at Cosmo Oil Co.’s Yokkaichi petroleum refinery in Japan.


Precision and repeatability

Industrial robots provide many advantages in manufacturing environments that require extreme precision, hygiene and repeatability, such as in the production of membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) for fuel cells. Stäubli International AG (Pfäffikon, Switzerland; has provided robots for what is said to be the world’s first fully automated production line for fuel cells, operated by Palcan Group in Cixi, China. MEAs present special challenges in mass production, since they are fabricated by stacking hundreds of very thin layers of expensive and fragile materials, but robots have helped to streamline the process. Robotic arms (Figure 1) not only position coated carbon sheets to begin the stacking process, but also handle films that must be soaked in a strong acidic solution, which would pose hazards to workers. Stäubli’s robots not only can handle the extremely acidic environment, but also high humidity, without any corrosion.

FIGURE 1. Robotic arms can prove very helpful in manufacturing applications that require precision and repeatability, as in the manufacture of batteries and fuel cells

The company has also supplied robots for the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, pharmaceuticals and many other products. “Emerging applications and performance improvements in robotics technology will enhance the capabilities of robots in manufacturing and energy operations, leading to greater productivity, cost savings and safety improvements in industry. As technology continues to evolve, businesses in the chemicals and energy sectors will likely find new and innovative uses for robotic systems,” says Sebastien Schmitt, robotics director for North America at Stäubli. Such advancements on the horizon include integration with more advanced AI and ML algorithms, enhanced sensory capabilities to give robots a better understanding of their environment and increased mobility to perform a wider range of tasks in hard-to-reach areas. For more on robotics from Stäubli’s Schmitt, see below.

Industrial Robotics 101

Current applications

Material handling. Robots are used to transport raw materials, finished products and hazardous substances within plants. This minimizes human exposure to dangerous chemicals and reduces the potential for accidents during material transfer.

Mixing and sampling. Robotic systems can handle the mixing of chemicals with high precision, consistency and repeatability. They can also perform automated sampling and testing to ensure product quality and process optimization.

Packaging and palletizing. End-of-line robotics can package chemical products and palletize them for shipment. Automation in this area can significantly increase throughput and reduce labor costs.

Inspection and quality control. Robots equipped with advanced vision systems can inspect containers, labels and seals for defects. This helps maintain high quality standards and compliance with industry regulations.

Assembly of components. In the production of chemical sensors, pumps or other devices, robots can assemble small and intricate components with high precision and speed.

Cleaning and maintenance. Robots can be used to clean reactors, tanks and other equipment in a chemical plant. Automated cleaning systems can work in environments that are unsafe for human workers due to toxic substances or extreme conditions.

Hazardous environment operations. Robots can operate in extreme conditions, such as high-temperature areas, or in environments with a risk of explosion or contamination, reducing the need for human exposure.

Laboratory automation. In research and quality-control laboratories, robots can conduct automated chemical analyses, handle reagents and prepare samples, leading to faster development cycles and consistent testing.

Process control. Robotic interfaces with advanced control systems can manage and monitor chemical processes, adjusting parameters in real time for optimal reactions and energy consumption.

Emergency response. Specialized robots can be used for emergency situations, such as chemical spills, fires or leaks. They can assess the scene, collect data and even perform cleanup or containment tasks.


Potential benefits

Enhanced safety. Robots can operate in hazardous environments where there may be exposure to toxic chemicals, extreme temperatures or high pressure, leading to fewer accidents and injuries.

Increased efficiency. Robotics can perform tasks at a higher speed and with greater precision than human workers. This can lead to increased productivity and throughput, helping companies to meet high demand and tight deadlines.

Consistent quality. Robots can maintain a high level of consistency in their work, which is particularly important in the CPI, where precise measurements and mixing are critical. Automation helps to ensure consistent product quality, batch after batch.

Reduced downtime. Robots can operate around the clock without the need for regular breaks, reducing downtime and increasing overall production time.

Cost savings. Although the initial investment in robotics can be significant, over time, robotic systems can reduce labor costs and increase production efficiency, resulting in cost savings for the company.

Improved data collection. Modern robotics systems are often equipped with sensors and can be integrated with data-analytics tools to provide valuable data on process efficiency, machine performance and product quality. Such data can be used to further optimize processes and predict maintenance needs.

Environmental considerations. Automation can help achieve more precise control over processes, such as mixing and chemical reactions, leading to reduced waste and emissions. This is not only beneficial for the environment but can also be cost-effective.

Scalability. Robotic systems can be scaled up or down to meet changing production needs without the same constraints faced by a human workforce.

Versatility. Advanced robots can be reprogrammed and fitted with different tools to perform a variety of tasks, making them adaptable to changing production needs or to the development of new products.

Innovation. Robotic technologies often drive innovation by enabling new processes and techniques that can lead to the development of new products and services within the chemical and energy sectors.


The next generation

Advanced AI and ML integration. Robots equipped with AI algorithms can improve their performance over time through ML techniques. This will allow robots to adapt to new tasks more quickly, perform complex decision-making and improve their efficiency and autonomy.

Enhanced sensory capabilities. The development of more sophisticated sensors will enable robots to have a better understanding of their environment. This will enhance their ability to perform tasks that require delicate handling, precise measurements and quality-control inspections.

Collaborative robots (cobots). Cobots are designed to work alongside human workers safely, and are becoming increasingly responsive and adaptable. They can take on repetitive or hazardous tasks, freeing up human workers for more complex problem-solving activities.

Increased mobility. With the development of more advanced mobile robots and drones, robots will become more capable of performing a wider range of tasks in various environments, including hard-to-reach areas in manufacturing plants or remote energy facilities.

Energy-specific robotics. Robotics designed for inspection and repair of energy infrastructure, such as pipelines, offshore platforms and wind turbines, will advance to tackle the unique challenges presented by these environments, including underwater and aerial navigation.

Internet of things (IoT) integration. Robots will be more interconnected with a wider array of devices and systems, allowing for better data collection, real-time monitoring and predictive maintenance. This will improve overall operational efficiency and reduce downtime.

Additive manufacturing robots. With the advancement of 3D printing, robots will increasingly be used in additive manufacturing processes to produce complex components on-demand, which can revolutionize inventory management and supply chains.

Smart material handling. In the energy sector, smart robotic systems will be employed for handling hazardous materials, reducing the risk of contamination and exposure.

Nano-robotics. Although still largely in the research phase, nano-robots could radically transform the manufacturing and energy sectors by enabling new processes at the molecular and atomic scale, such as targeted drug delivery or ultra-precision manufacturing.

“Green” robotics. With the growing focus on sustainability, there is an increasing demand for robots that can assist in the creation and maintenance of sustainable energy systems, such as solar-panel installation, cleaning and recycling operations. ❑

Content contributed by Sebastien Schmitt, Robotics Director, North America, Stäubli

As in manufacturing applications, the water-processing sector involves critical infrastructure for society, as well as hazards and confined spaces that present safety risks for workers. Fluid Analytics Ltd. (Santa Clara, Calif.; has designed several AI and robotic technologies targeted at the water-processing sector, including AI-based pipeline-inspection software and a robotics and IoT platform for surveillance of wastewater-processing infrastructure (Figure 2). “The water sector relies heavily on tanks and pipelines for the transport of liquids across several processes and requires this infrastructure to perform as designed to prevent catastrophic failures. Fluid Analytics’ robots are commonly deployed for pipeline infrastructure inspections where there is a risk of human exposure to toxic chemicals,” says Asim Bhalerao, CEO of Fluid Analytics. Using robotics to automate such routine monitoring and surveillance of pipelines carrying wastewater and chemical effluents is very advantageous for worker safety, since the concentrations of toxic chemicals and dangerous biological microbes are often high. By proactively mapping out pipe networks, detecting signs of deterioration or leaks, water loss is significantly reduced, as are risks for environmental damage.

FIGURE 2. Robotic inspection and surveillance can help protect water infrastructure against deterioration and water losses

“Through its repeatable and precise monitoring capabilities, Fluid Analytics’ platform has helped to reduce the discharge of over 200 million gal/d of toxic fluids into urban waterways,” says Bhalerao. Notably, Fluid Analytics’ monitoring platform helped to detect the presence of the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in India’s wastewater, days before the first reported clinical case.


Remotely control water cleanup

At the 2024 AIChE Spring Meeting (March 24–29; New Orleans, La.;, Cyril Castello, commercial director for IADYS (Roquefort-la-Bédoule, France; presented a unique robotic device that has already found use in several large chemical-manufacturing complexes. The Jellyfishbot (Figure 3) is a small robotic device designed for monitoring and cleaning bodies of water. Jellyfishbot devices have been deployed globally at industrial sites to clean up plastics and oil spills in water bodies adjacent to production plants. Industrial users include Dow Chemical, LyondellBasell, ExxonMobil, Veolia, TotalEnergies, Toyota and many more. According to Castello, for cleanup of plastics, the robot can be outfitted with a specialized net for collecting microplastics in water. Besides their cleaning capabilities, Jellyfishbot robots also can be equipped with water-quality sensors to measure temperature, salinity, turbidity and cyanobacteria and phytoplankton concentrations.

FIGURE 3. These remotely controlled robotic devices are designed for cleaning debris and pollution from water surfaces

At Dow’s manufacturing site in Freeport, Tex., Jellyfishbots have been deployed to clean debris, such as plastic pellets or overgrown algae, out of stormwater conveyance systems, meaning that humans no longer need to access these areas during extreme heat or potential flood situations. The autonomous nature and onboard sensors of the robots allow them to navigate their environment seamlessly, minimizing collision with walls or other obstacles. The robots can communicate via wireless, Bluetooth or 5G connectivity, so remote control is possible in any plant area as needed. The next step for Dow will be to install a floating docking station — which IADYS is commercially launching this year — so that the robot can automatically dock itself when charging is required. “With the docking station, which will recharge the robot, allow it to offload the net and will clean the robot, we’re definitely taking things to the next level. We are also thinking about a supervision platform to enable the use of a fleet of robots (several dozen) without any manual intervention,” says Castello.

Besides Dow, IADYS is partnering with several other plants in the U.S. Gulf Coast region that are part of the Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) program aimed at reducing plastic pollution in water.

The newest generation of IADYS robot is the Mobile Oil Skimmer (MOS), which equips a Jellyfishbot with a storage platform and skimmer. Said to be the first mobile oil-cleanup device, the MOS can collect oil from the surface of water and store it in an onboard 120-L tank. According to the company, the MOS can achieve a fast skimming rate of 3.5 L/min, which is essential for containing oil spills and minimizing environmental damage. Also helpful is the robots’ ability to rapidly deploy the containment booms used for spill response (Figure 4).

FIGURE 4. Robots can quickly deploy containment booms for faster remediation of oil spills


Advances in teleoperation

The second Advanced Industrial Robotic Applications (AIRA) Challenge ( will take place at the Achema World Forum and Tradeshow (June 10–14; Frankfurt am Main, Germany; The AIRA Challenge will bring together some of most advanced mobile robots in the world with the goal of developing new robotics technologies that can execute tasks remotely in chemical processing plants. At the previous AIRA Challenge, held at Achema in 2022, the goal was to provide proof-of-concepts for fully autonomous mobile robots (Figure 5). However, for the 2024 challenge, the focus is moving beyond full automation to a more dynamic and communicative model for robots. “Making robots fully autonomous takes enormous effort to program everything, so we wanted to expand the business case for autonomous robots. Now, we’re not just looking for an autonomous robot, but one that can communicate its needs to operators,” explains Carl-Helmut Coulon, head of future manufacturing concepts at Invite GmbH (Leverkusen Germany;, the organizer of the AIRA Challenge.

FIGURE 5. The AIRA Challenge has helped to push the boundaries of automation in mobile robots

Giving robots the ability to “call for help” when an unknown situation is encountered helps to lower the programming barrier for automaticity, says Coulon. “You can program in the easiest 80% of the solution, and then any situation that the robot cannot handle by itself can be communicated to and dealt with by the operator,” he explains. While it may seem like reducing the amount of automation in a robot might decrease its complexity and capabilities, there are many benefits to the teleoperation approach that AIRA is looking for. “We want to upgrade the robots to enable remote control of the robot from a distance with no line of sight, and also add virtual reality to navigate. This gives the robot flexibility to open and close doors, dispose of waste, inspect closed cabinets and take material samples,” says Coulon.

He believes that the flexibility enabled by teleoperation will increase the business use cases for mobile robots in chemical plants and warehouses and encourage their adoption in industry. In theory, operators could take control of a robot at a plant thousands of kilometers away to respond to an alarm or evaluate the severity of a situation and decide whether or not in-person intervention is required.

“We see teleoperation as an extension of classical autonomous mobile operations. At the challenge, we expect to see mobile robotics capabilities that have never been seen before,” adds Coulon. The 2024 AIRA Challenge finalists, listed below, were selected by a judging group consisting of experts from BASF, Bayer, Wacker and Boehringer Ingelheim.

EngRoTec Group (Hünfeld, Germany;

ETH Zurich’s Robotic Systems Lab (Switzerland;

Forschungzentrum für Informatik (Karlsruhe, Germany;

Reply Roboverse (Munich;

Team TruPhysics/United Robotics Group (Stuttgart, Germany;