The sight of the 72-foot tall, 67-ton robot billed as the largest industrial robot in the world wowed a crowd of robotics enthusiasts, Dutch officials, tech startup founders, and even children brought by parents.
Xyrec, a Netherlands-based company, showcased its gargantuan technology at a public demonstration held last week at Kelly Field, where the company has a custom hangar built at Port San Antonio.
Xyrec’s robot strips paint off airplanes, replacing what has historically been a toxic and time-consuming ordeal done by hand with a new streamlined process.
The robot sears paint off with a powerful laser, housed in a box the size of a car. The laser bounces through mirrors up the robot’s mast and out from its arm, which can articulate a position with six axes of movement on entirely electric motors. The laser’s firing emits a peculiar whining and growling sound. It is the sound of air molecules heating up, and the paint popping off the aircraft’s metal surface.
The evaporated paint creates a noxious gas that is instantly sucked up and filtered, leaving behind a small pile of grey dust.
Xyrec president and founder Peter Boeijink has said the process of completely stripping a commercial aircraft such as a Boeing 777 would take around five days and require two robot operators. The traditional process would have more than a dozen workers using lots of water and harsh chemicals to do the same job in about 11 days.
Boeijink said he started on this technology back in 2008, when he learned of the traditional process. “I saw what a terrible environmental thing is going on here, but also, look at the people working on this — it is immensely unhealthy.”
The Southwest Research Institute, whose location in San Antonio led Boeijink to base Xyrec’s North American operation in the city last year, designed the robot around Boeijink’s specifications.
Port San Antonio provided a custom-built, 7,000 square foot hangar and facility at its industrial airport, Kelly Field. Here the Xyrec robots are assembled by the company’s local engineers and fabrication specialists, using parts sourced from the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Japan, and the United States, among other places.
The machines recently hit the market. Though there are no confirmed customers yet, “there is serious interest,” Boeijink told the San Antonio Report, but declined to provide details.
Xyrec’s location at Kelly Field puts it in close proximity to one potential customer, Boeing, which operates a huge military aircraft maintenance and repair facility there. The aerospace giant also uses the facility to turn Boeing 777s into customized aircraft for foreign heads of state.
Xyrec’s business model offers “robots as a service,” meaning the giant machines aren’t sold, but rather rented to customers. They can be refitted with different tools and functionality beyond a paint-stripping laser, such as an inkjet printer.
Xyrec’s demo last week drew people from many of the other robotics shops in town (in addition to representatives from the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Spotted in the crowd was Erik Nieves, founder of Plus One Robotics, which earlier this year raised $33 million in investor funding, as well as Ryan Saavedra, the young founder of robotic prosthetic start up Alt-Bionics.
Even these robotics veterans were awed at Xyrec’s robot.
“The scale of it is — it’s just amazing,” said Kris Kozac, the founder of Hatchbed, a San Antonio-based autonomous robotics firm.
San Antonio’s small but tight-knit robotics scene became a subject of discussion during a panel that featured Boeijink alongside Paul Evans, director of research and development at the Southwest Research Institute, as well as Paco Felici, chief of staff at Port San Antonio.
Evans said the robotics scene is “well-skilled” at collaborating on solutions. “There’s a lot of people you can reach out to, and they’ll make introductions and help solve problems,” he said.
Felici said an engine of further growth could be the Port’s upcoming innovation center, currently under construction, which promises to cross-pollinate experts from a variety of fields and enterprises.
Boeijink was authoritative about his dream to grow the scene.
“I have a very strong vision to create a San Antonio robotics family, where robotics companies come together with different skills, visions, financing, knowledge, and can use each other’s market position,” he said.