Automating Spray Painting with AkzoNobel

The Nordbo Robotics team visited the Swedish offices of Akzonobel to observe what they were able to accomplish with the help of the Mimic. Akzonobel, in response to requests from their customer base, has been seeking solutions to the problems facing many of today’s manufacturers that have painting as a part of their process. How do we maintain consistency when our staff turnover is growing? How do we implement automation when the demand is for smaller runs of custom products? How will robots be able to complete the tasks necessary to provide the same level of quality that we get from our experienced craftsmen? 

“Automating painting tasks is too difficult”

This is the prevalent attitude that comes across every time the subject of introducing automation into a painting process comes up. Even if a craftsman can be convinced that a robot can do as good a job as a human there is a manager that is quick to point out that automation may work for large scale production but it is infeasible for SMB’s.

In fact many businesses that have integrated robots into their painting processes need to have a human worker at the end of the line making touch ups. The reality is that unless a company is making a standardised product with very little deviation in the process, it quickly becomes inefficient to implement robots. Reprogramming even the simplest of tasks can take days if not weeks.

The challenge from Akzonobel

As the world’s third largest supplier of paint and coatings there’s not much that Akzonobel hasn’t experienced in regards to painting. With its focus on innovation they have long been monitoring ways in which it could help its clients automate the painting process. When Nordbo Robotics Mimic platform popped up on their radar their interest was piqued and a challenge was offered, “Can Mimic really automate a painter’s hand movements through a  no-code solution?”

Variable tasks, hard angles and consistency demands

In consultation with their user base Akzonobel has heard the same concerns about attempts at painting automation: Some aspects of spray painting require a fluid and organic movement which is very difficult to program, while other aspects require consistent movement and positioning that is challenging for humans to maintain.

In addition the variability of the tasks given these manufacturers is trending quickly towards high mix low volume production. This means smaller batches of unique products and the prospect of having to shut down the line to reprogram every few days makes the whole concept impractical before it even starts.

Despite these challenges the desire for automation has never been stronger. Companies are having more and more difficulty navigating the skills gap. It often takes months to fully train a new painting technician and finding people willing to see this as a career is not getting any easier. Even when technicians are found and trained the best of them can’t offer 100% consistency in their process, which is increasingly important as the batch size shrinks.

Cobot Technology opens New Possibilities

One of the barriers to introducing automation to finishing tasks such as painting has been the space that an industrial robot can take up on a factory floor. In addition to the sizable robot arm, safety barriers need to be set up to protect the surrounding workers from the quick and often sudden movements of the robot. Cobot technology has transformed the concept of robots in the workplace into a collaborative venture. The smaller size and more reactive safety measures mean human operators can work alongside them, utilising them as they would any tool.


According to data from Universal Robots productivity increases from companies that have introduced cobots into their workflows range from 30% to 80%. Many businesses also report that their operators report greater levels of connection with their cobots than they ever did their industrial counterparts. Akzonobel’s spirit of innovation recognised that cobots would factor into the future of painting automation and integrating Nordbo Robotics software together with this technology would hopefully give them the results they had been searching for.

Taking Mimic for a test drive

In partnership with SE Automation, Akzonobel was able to install a Mimic enabled spray painting station in their offices in Malmø, Sweden. The results spoke for themselves. Technical Services manager Tim Bouvry had the opportunity to not only see the results of the setup but try the programming first hand. He remarked, “It’s very easy to program without coding. We do our regular movements and the program mimics that perfectly.”

The Mimic system included a Universal Robots cobot integrated with a Mimic IR tracker, which allows a user to teach the robot with a wireless handheld tracker. This system allows the operator to simply demonstrate the task for the robot and the Mimic software seamlessly translates those movements into robotic movement code. “The hardest thing to do is to get the angles right” remarked Tim, referring to the care required to spray paint window frames, these tasks that are the most complicated to code are easily taught via the Mimic system.

Human Skills, Robotic Precision

One of Nordbo Robotics missions is to create a bridge between craftsmen and robotics. This has been difficult in the past as the technicians responsible for programming the robots generally don’t have a full understanding of the intricacies of the application, similarly craftsmen aren’t able to translate their skills into computer code. A cobot or industrial robot integrated with a Mimic system bridges this gap and allows those employees with the highest degree of skill to teach the robot through demonstration. This can then be repeated as many times as needed and deliver 100% consistency with the degree of skill that represents “Best Practice”. As pointed out by Tim from Akzonobel, “The mimic software really offers a possibility to bring automated spraying to every level of customer.”

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