Imagine having a perfect colleague who tirelessly carries out all dangerous and monotonous work assignments while you are enjoying a nice cup of coffee and focusing on productive and meaningful tasks. What if we told you that this is possible? There are versatile ways in which robots can be of assistance in maintenance and servicing operations. Why should we increase their use in maintenance and servicing and how can they facilitate people's work?
Robotics has a lot to offer in maintenance and servicing
In the industrial sector, maintenance and servicing is one of the most significant cost factors, causing, in light of research, approximately 2–20% of the company's total costs, depending on the sector. Currently, the costs derive particularly from most of the work being carried out as reparative maintenance. It would be important to find a balance between planned maintenance and fault repairs when developing maintenance and servicing business. This would minimise the maintenance costs and maximise the utilisation rates of machinery and equipment.
The global value of the maintenance and servicing business is approximately EUR 34 billion, of which robotics only account for about EUR 4–6 billion, or 10%. Still, robots would have a lot to offer in the sector.
Safer workplace, more satisfied employees
One of the most obvious benefits of robotics is safety. This becomes emphasised in maintenance and servicing in particular, as robots are capable of working in varying environments. They can carry out their tasks in dangerous and cramped environments, hot and cold circumstances, in the dark and in bright light. Therefore, robots are already widely used for a variety of inspection tasks in places like pipelines, tanks, steel structures and power lines. They can do maintenance and servicing tasks that could be very dangerous to people but cause only minor damage to robots. For example, when inspecting steel structures or windmills, robots do not need any scaffolds.
People often fear that robots will come and steal our jobs. In reality, robots do not rob people of their jobs, they just change the nature of work. While robots are carrying out less significant, monotonous and repetitive tasks, the staff can focus on creative work that adds value. In maintenance and servicing business, robots can carry out tasks like basic maintenance and fault repair, while the maintenance staff can concentrate on predicting maintenance needs and developing the business. Focusing on more meaningful tasks will increase work satisfaction and motivation. In addition, robots are not capable of operating fully independently but they need to be supervised and controlled by people. Teaching people to work with robots gives employees a good reason to stay in their jobs and a unique opportunity to develop their skills.
Higher productivity, lower costs
The main financial benefits of robotics are related to increased productivity and lower costs. Robots can work 24/7 and 365 days a year. The do not need any coffee or lunch breaks, or annual or sick leaves, or get caught up in conversation with a colleague, feel stressed or tired, or make human mistakes when carrying out their work tasks. Robots are always there and carry out the tasks assigned to them every time in the same order, without making mistakes, producing uniform quality, and much faster than any human would. As assigned, they can, for example, perform specific maintenance or servicing tasks at night or during some other quiet period, so no downtime in production is needed. This helps keep the production and utilisation rates high and save costs.
How to promote the use of robotics in maintenance and servicing business?
There is still a lot of untapped potential in using robots for maintenance and servicing tasks in a wider scale. The capabilities and benefits robots can provide for the maintenance and servicing business are significant and versatile. When we bring together stakeholders with the same interest in robotics and share lessons learned from various sectors, we can gradually take steps towards more extensive use of robots in maintenance and servicing.
With various other European R&D organisations, VTT is involved in the RIMA (Robotics for Inspection and Maintenance) project funded by the European Commission. The project aims to contribute to increasing awareness of how robotics could be utilised for inspection and maintenance in the EU area. RIMA Network Community offers a platform for stakeholders interested in robotics to network and increase their knowledge of technologies applicable to maintenance and servicing business through, for example, participating in training courses and events and hearing about the newest areas of application. Joining the network will give you a front-line seat to the latest developments in robotics for maintenance and servicing.