At Port San Antonio, a 7-story-tall, laser-wielding robot is ready to blast coats of paint from aircraft and other big pieces of machinery.
A collaboration between Southwest Research Institute and Netherlands-based XYREC pioneered a new technology for stripping paint from airplanes, ships and heavy equipment using a wheeled robot armed with a 20-kilowatt laser.
It’s the largest machine of its type.
The technology eliminates the need for chemicals or bead blasting traditionally used in aircraft paint removal, said Paul Evans, SwRI’s principal investigator on the project. So it’s safer for workers, better for the environment and decreases aircraft down times.
With traditional methods, removing paint from one wide-body aircraft — such as a Boeing 747 — requires 475 gallons of chemicals and 3,700 gallons of water. The robot doesn’t need chemicals or water.
Algorithms and sensors fine-tune the laser as it burns the coatings and vacuums and filters the debris. It creates about 2 pounds of waste for a wide-body aircraft.
“What this laser allows you to do is incinerate and render those chemicals relatively inert,” said Port San Antonio President and CEO Jim Perschbach.
The laser uses about as much energy as six household ovens running at the same time, Evans said. And the robot can strip a layer of paint from a Boeing 737 in about 10 hours.
Using the robots slashes aircraft downtime for painting by 60 percent, said Peter Boeijink, president and CEO of XYREC Inc., an aircraft maintenance company.
He said the robot could cut downtime from nine to four days, which could save operators up to $250,000 per aircraft.
“Aircraft operators earn money by shorter processing time,” he said in an e-mail.
Also, hangar utilization increases and improves the investment in the hangar space.
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Boeijink declined to address the robot’s price or cost of service. He said the company will lease the robots to customers, whose costs will depend on usage.
While the machine doesn’t have a formal name, he said, those involved with the program simply call it “LCR,” or Laser Coating Removal robot.
XYREC has occupied a new 7,000-square-foot facility at the port in its first North American operation.
“This is the type of groundbreaking stuff that we talk about when we talk about tech port and porting new technologies into mature industries,” Perschbach said.
The robot was named one of the “100 most significant innovations of 2020” by R&D World Magazine.
Brandon Lingle writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. To read more from Brandon, become a subscriber. firstname.lastname@example.org