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INESC TEC creates painting robot that sees and learns

INESC TEC is part of a consortium which has developed a robotised painting system - the SMARTPAINT – that is able to "see" and imitate the movements of factory workers.

The next step is to export robot to Brazil

Increasing productivity, gaining competitive advantages and avoiding repetitive tasks and continued contact with environments which are harmful to health are the main objectives of this innovative equipment. The next step is to export the robot to emerging foreign markets.

Portuguese technology scores points

It is in Portuguese company FLUPOL that the SMARTPAINT is already being used, an innovative technology developed by INESC TEC. FLUPOL is an SME that operates in the field of Surface Engineering, performing functional adhesion, corrosion and self-lubricating coatings, which requires a high degree of expertise of operators, as well as great flexibility of the means of production. Due to the demanding processes used in the company, a period of eight years is required to train a factory worker, but with the autonomous system developed by INESC TEC that reality ceases to exist.

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Without direct interference of a programmer, each robotic manipulator can be programmed directly by the skilled worker who prepares the equipment for several series of moves that will treat a wide range of parts. According to António Paulo Moreira, manager of INESC TEC’s Robotics and Intelligent Systems Unit (ROBIS), "the operator can create a program for the manipulator (robot) only by demonstrating the operation to be performed. "For the researcher, it is "a very simple, fast and effective of programming robotic manipulators." But do not think that the robot is able to replicate only a certain operation; in fact, the robot can also identify each piece and coat it by selecting the most appropriate program.

More than a saving in terms of years of training required, the system will prevent skilled workers from performing repetitive manual tasks that can cause injuries, and minimise situations of contact with environments (paints, solvents) which are harmful to the health of workers. Therefore, the expertise of workers is used without the constraint of reduced physical capacity. All this will increase the productivity of skilled workers, which is another asset of this project. This project was, therefore, the way to achieve competitive advantage, taking the "laboratory" to the "factory".

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Paving the way to Brazil

The FLUPOL is the first Portuguese company to adopt a robotic manipulator that uses artificial vision to reproduce human movements. And by saving the training time required, this SME, located in the Municipality of Valongo, will be able to increase their activity and begin to speed the process of exporting production units to key markets. One of those key markets identified by José Bandeira, CEO at FLUPOL, is Brazil. This is because the product price will exclude, with a factory in Brazil, distribution costs and customs fees, which makes it very competitive.

This company is already a leader in Portugal, exporting more than 75% of its production, mainly to the automotive and food industries. This is a result of lack of critical size of the national market which forces the company to rely on foreign markets. For José Bandeira, there is a need for expansion by replicating industrial unit in emerging countries, "without compromising the flexibility of the production system, much less the quality of services", he states. "It is difficult to meet that requirement “if we keep the traditional eight-year period of training ", he adds. The technology will then allow the FLUPOL to "overcome this handicap, turning robotic manipulators into fast learners", José Bandeira explains.

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According to the company's CEO, INESC TEC's participation in this project was "essential and without this Institute it would not have been possible to develop this project," considering that the basic technology - the system of learning by demonstration, the system to recognise parts using laser and the system management painting programs - "was fully developed by researchers at INESC TEC", he adds.

A differentiating strategy

The SMARTPAINT was created as part of the SIIARI project (System for Increased Industrial Robotics Artificial Intelligence), developed by a consortium led by FLUPOL. Two INESC TEC units – the Robotics and Intelligent Systems Unit (ROBIS) and the Manufacturing Systems Engineering Unit (UESP) – also contributed with their expertise. The consortium also includes the Industrial Equipment Company (Companhia de Equipamentos Industriais - CEI) and the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto (FEUP). 

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The effectiveness of the robotic cell has already been proven in a public presentation which took place on 12 November at FLUPOL, which was attended by representatives of all consortium members. The visitors had the opportunity to see a presentation on the project and the technology in operation. INESC TEC’s skills in the development of autonomous systems were already known. And with this equipment, more than the experience of INESC TEC in two key areas - robotics and manufacturing engineering – it is possible to confirm the benefits to the domestic industry of combining these  two areas.

Using this type of equipment can be particularly beneficial for SMEs, especially in a time of economic crisis. José Bandeira confirms this and calls himself a "supporter of the results of the famous Porter report, according to which we should base our growth on what we do well. The SIIARI will allow us to replicate what we do well and reliably maintain the 'art'", he states. António Paulo Moreira shares the same opinion, saying that the combination of these two areas of excellence at INESC TEC to create projects of this type, which confirms the diversity of this research institute, is the way to "increase national production and to allow robotics to be used small and medium production series", he concludes.

BIP, November 2012



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