When Kent Weisenberg designed and engineered his first patented robot in 1999, it didn’t need to be especially user-friendly, because he only had two employees.
But in the last 10-plus years his company has grown – significantly – developing more robots and completing revolutionary projects to rehabilitate pressurized pipeline systems at chemical plants, refineries and mining operations around the globe. With more employees and more projects in the pipeline, the need has emerged for robots that are not only easier for employees to operate, but adaptable for a wide range of projects.
One of Quest Inspar’s latest and most groundbreaking projects fell on the laps of its engineers about two years ago. Tacoma’s Public Utilities had a 2,156-foot section of water transmission pipe running through Puyallup that was deteriorating and in need of replacement.
In 2009, Michel Peloquin, a professional engineer for water supply, who headed the project for Tacoma Water, learned about a company that was working with polyurea materials in England at a conference he attended. That company was no longer in business, but it inspired him to see if there was a way polyurea could be used in the South Sound.
His search led him in 2011 to Quest Inspar, which is based in Houston but designs and develops robots out of its facility in Kent. Up until then, Quest Inspar had been using its robotics to repair and rehabilitate industrial and chemical plant pipelines for major power generation companies, chemical companies and refineries in areas such as Louisiana, Florida, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas.
Although Quest Inspar had never sent its robots into drinking water pipes, the process of applying a protective coating would be similar to projects it had previously undertaken.
So, for the last few years, Quest Inspar’s engineers have been further developing a large diameter device that the company first designed and put to use in 2006.
“We have been utilizing this technology for nearly 12 years to rehabilitate much more complex industrial and chemical plant pipelines,” said Weisenberg, Quest Inspar’s founder and chief technology officer. “It was time to bring it to benefit the critical challenges municipal water departments and our communities face with the need to fix aging pipe systems with limited financial resources.
“What we dedicated our time to was making the robot more user-friendly, more repeatable, if you will.”
The robot and the umbilical line attached to it are controlled by an operator who monitors the application process from a computer above ground. Like with the company’s other robots, the umbilical, which looks like a long vacuum hose, feeds the robot the liner it sprays as it moves through the interior of a pipe.
Moving at about 11 inches a minute, the new Quest Inspar device lined the deteriorating local pipe in March, eliminating the need to dig up and replace the pipe that was installed in the Puyallup community in 1936. This was the world’s first in-place robotic lining of a large diameter drinking water pipeline with structural polyurea.
The project, while successful in its own accord, has opened a new area of business for the company, creating new options for utilities to repair in-place aging pipe systems.
The robot can line pipes with diameters greater than 42 inches and is the first of its kind that can line a pipe in a single pass-through. Existing technology on the market requires multiple run-throughs to apply a coat as thick as its 0.375-inch liner, Weisenberg said.
“They all spray polyurea, and that’s a two-component chemical that cures in about four seconds,” Weisenberg said. “It makes a pipe inside the pipe. There are some real advantages to that. We’re using the pipe as a mold. No matter the geometry of the pipe, it always aligns and it’s a tight fit to the pipe wall.”
Quest Inspar’s other three robots can line pipes from four inches to 20 inches, 24 inches to 42 inches, and from six inches to 24 inches. The latter is designed for long straight runs of pipe, while the other two are more flexible and able to accommodate multiple bends in pipes, like the new robot.
“We’re still working on them. There are customers and clients out there that have different configurations of pipe or need a certain thing,” Weisenberg said. “They’re fundamental base units and then they have certain functionalities that are included in all the patents. But, what we’re able to do is kind of mix and match for different pipe configurations – different diameters, what kind of material they need in there. We’re constantly changing them for the client’s pipe system.”
Adapting a robot from conceptualization to implementation for a new project can take anywhere from a week to six months.
The new robot will be put to work again next month, lining large diameter circulating water pipelines in Texas for Xcel Energy.
One of Quest Inspar’s robots might also be headed to Qatar, where its liner is being tested for potential application to a 45-mile pipeline subjected to abnormally high abrasive wear.
The company is in discussion with power plants in New Mexico, Nevada and California, chemical plants in Texas and Ohio, and water utilities in California and Colorado for projects to fit within scheduled shutdowns over the next two years, among other government and private industry facilities.
Tacoma Water is tapping Quest Inspar again as well, for a project involving 2,200 feet of water transmission line next November.
Weisenberg will speak about his company’s success rehabilitating water transmission pipelines at the Underground Construction Technology International Conference & Exhibition in January in Houston and will be co-presenting with Peloquin the case study of this world’s first application at the National American Water Works Association Conference in Boston in April 2014.
To accommodate the growth, the company plans to hire more employees in the next two years. Scott Wise, vice president of marketing and sales, said he hopes to have about 40 employees by the end of 2014 and between 50 and 75 at the end of 2015.