Updated: Jan 2
The Challenge: Making Chemical Tank Maintenance Safer and More Efficient
There are some problems that you'll have to face, no matter who you are and where you live. For production plants around the world, and chemical plants especially, one of those problems is maintenance. Just like any home water boiler, storage tanks in factories crack, rust, and break down over time. They need love and attention just like the rest of us. But shutting down for regular inspections and maintenance means interfering with the plant's workflow and losing valuable production time. For our client, a major industrial chemical manufacturer, it also involves sending workers into dangerous environments.
Shutting down for regular inspections and maintenance means interfering with the plant's workflow and losing valuable production time.
In a world of machine learning, complex image processing, autonomous vehicles, and Mars landings, it seems like there should be better solutions than sending people into chemical tanks for inspections. So our client asked us to create one.
The Background: Existing Solutions, But at What Price?
Like any development process, the project began with market research to find out what's already out there. Because there's always something out there. For example, we found robotic arms created by Hibot in Japan, which looked like the perfect solution, until we discovered they won't be on the market until 2022. There are plenty of robots out there, moving, lifting, and arranging in every industry. There's even SPOT, the robot dog, who can run, climb, and jump.
Each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses, but they're all heavy, expensive, and require the user to develop a brand new interface before actually using the robot.
All of this adds up to a lot of expense and means that using these robots doesn't always make sense in practice.
The idea was inspired by military surveillance devices and the winches used to tow vehicles.
Getting Started: Exploring Our Options
Once we knew we'd need to develop our own solution, we divided into three teams. We're always quick and agile here at XYZeron, but a bit of internal competition never hurts. One team experimented with scanning drones, while the other two focused on sensors and cameras attached to movable devices.
Based on the work of these three internal discovery groups, we decided on a direction. We would use specialized cameras that could both scan quickly and get close enough to specific spots to detect even the tiniest cracks and flaws. The idea was inspired by military surveillance devices and the winches used to tow vehicles. Once we had impressively detailed, high-quality photos, the company's image processing team would begin to work their magic.
The team will be able to record each tank's history, track wear and tear, and eventually create a model to anticipate problems before they start
Design: Finding the Right Tech
Sounds simple enough: camera + lighting = problem solved! But finding the perfect camera makes this simple equation look a lot more like differential calculus. We needed a camera that could work quickly to find tiny cracks in containers of various sizes, and it had to be both light and budget-friendly. And the lighting wasn't much simpler. How do you light up a space entirely made of glass and stainless steel, without causing glare? And once you have a device to do it, how do you move the entire thing around?
For our first attempts, we wanted to use an 8K 360° camera and we managed to get our hands on some of the best technology out there. But we still needed to light the tank's entire interior evenly. On the advice of experts, we used high-quality soft white lighting, and now the fun could begin. We photographed from every angle in tanks of varying shapes and sizes and took the pictures back to the office to play with.
We needed a camera that could work quickly to find tiny cracks in containers of various sizes, and it had to be both light and budget-friendly.
Once we started testing, we realized that our winning camera wasn't as perfect as we'd hoped. While it could photograph the whole space quickly, it wasn't picking up the cracks, corrosion, and imperfections that it needed to. Not such a winner after all. Fortunately, at XYZeron we know the road to success can be bumpy. We consulted companies that had taken photos inside tunnels under Israel's border with Gaza and they recommended we check out PTZ (Pan-Tilt-Zoom) security cameras. These cameras rotate in every direction, provide their own lighting, can zoom like crazy, and are designed for harsh conditions. They're also mass-produced, so they're very budget-friendly.
After running the problem by local PTZ experts, we got our hands on the Invictus Hybrid, a tough PTZ camera with 2 megapixels, light sensors, x18 and x45 optical zoom and x144 digital zoom capabilities, and the ability to rotate 360°. By the time we got to the fourth round of testing, that atmosphere was tense as we waited to see if we'd finally captured tiny cracks on camera. Success! This time around, we found defects and fissures that the client's human inspectors had missed.
Implementation: Bringing the Product to the People From our three initial exploration groups, we'd narrowed down our ideas, developed a concept, and found the right technology: a portable, lightweight, PTZ camera for inspecting enclosed spaces. We presented it to the client, trained their team to use it, and stuck around to keep an eye on the experience. After all, even the best tech needs to be user-friendly.
The current version integrates specialized software to operate the durable camera, chosen for its ability to withstand tough conditions and still provide high-quality images. This technological medley provides the optimal solution for inspecting easily and catching problems early.
Next Steps: Putting the Data to Work
Only now do we start to uncover the project's hidden treasures. As the client uses the system, they'll gather a huge collection of images that they'll send on to XYZeron's image processing team. The team will be able to record each tank's history, track wear and tear, and eventually create a model to anticipate problems before they start. The system will be able to notify operators when there's a change from earlier photos, so they know to take a closer look. In the future, we'll also add a feature to test the thickness of container walls.
When you're dealing with giant tanks holding dangerous chemicals, it's nice to know they're in good shape. But you shouldn't have to risk life and livelihood to be sure. Our client's inspection process now fits safely and easily into their regular operations, thanks to advanced tech and a dash of creative thinking.
Creating Solutions, the XYZeron Way
XYZeron brings together experts in hardware, firmware, and software design & development. With broad know-how, teamwork, and some out-of-the-box thinking, we offer our clients fast, sophisticated prototyping and technological consulting that helps you take the next step into your future.
Check out more project and case studies at: www.xyzeron.com