In the Zone
RedZone Robotics Inc. is a comeback story that fits in perfectly with the working class, blue-collar mentality that the city it’s headquartered in — Pittsburgh — is known for. Rebounding from financial struggles that saw a change in ownership, focus and philosophy, this robotics company is becoming an innovative leader in the trenchless marketplace.
CEO Eric Close acquired RedZone six years ago out of bankruptcy, believing a change in focus would turn the company around. Since then, the company has grown in its new market surroundings with more employees and more money infused into its coffers to develop and expand its technology. With the release of its latest robot, Solo, in 2009, RedZone Robotics is poised to challenge the way municipalities handle their buried underground infrastructure.
Close said he finds the trenchless technology marketplace fascinating and growing during an economic period in which many other construction segments are struggling. He believes that the technologies RedZone offers are cost-effective and efficient ways for municipalities to handle the challenge of rebuilding, rehabbing and maintaining the country’s aging infrastructure.
“From the beginning, we have just focused on differentiating ourselves and making sure we are getting our clients the best and most relevant and valuable information so they can make these important decisions,” Close said.
How It All Started
The City of Pittsburgh is known for many things, especially its professional sports teams. The Steelers and Penguins are world champions and both have connected with the blue-collar community that make up the city’s workforce. But Pittsburgh’s rejuvenated downtown, which is famously carved by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and where the Ohio River forms, tells a different economic tale.
While the city’s economy is historically known for its steel industry, today it’s largely based on healthcare, education, technology, robotics and financial services. Today, Pittsburgh is known to the technology world as the center of excellence for robotics — even having been referred to in the Wall Street Journal as “Roboburgh — with a hub of large and small robotics firms serving the healthcare, defense, material handling and wastewater markets.
Pittsburgh is where RedZone Robotics has grown into a leading and innovative robotics company, first opening its doors in 1987. Its founder and chief scientist Red Whitaker would make the company’s mark early on by creating robots for the industrial, nuclear and military industries. In those early days, the company was closely tied to Carnegie Mellon University, working together to develop cutting-edge technology — a relationship that is a critical component to RedZone even today.
In 2004, Close purchased RedZone Robotics out of bankruptcy and the company’s focus changed with its ownership. Close made the bold decision to move away from its nuclear and military market roots, which gave the financially-troubled company a narrow clientele base, and focus exclusively on the broader and more dynamic wastewater market. The decision proved to be a savvy one, bringing the company back from financial struggles to a thriving one in a few short years. With Close, came new investors pumping millions of dollars into the company.
“We took the competencies that RedZone established over its 18-year history and combined them with many of the technologies that were developed at Carnegie Mellon University, our sister research and development facility, and set forth to go after the enormous wastewater pipe inspection market,” said
“What we saw was that wastewater was really an untapped market for robotics and that to a large extent, CCTV inspection had not changed a whole lot from a 1960s Halliburton setup,” he said. “We saw that we could take the best practices from our prior fields and apply those technologies to the wastewater field and make a big difference. That is what we have done.”
According to Close, the wastewater market is a perfect place to take on the fundamental thesis of robotics, or as he refers to, the three D’s of robotics: dirty, dangerous and dull. “Are [sewers] dirty? That goes without saying. Are [sewers] dangerous? We all know how dangerous they are, especially the large ones and the gases, etc. In terms of dull, I don’t mean boring, but instead refer to the repetitious nature of inspecting long, straight sewer lines,” Close explained.
Close came to RedZone as an established entrepreneur and a robotics protégé of RedZone founder Red Whitaker. He carries with him a blend of business, with his MBA from Carnegie Mellon University, and, as an electrical engineer, technical expertise. He has co-founded and built three companies prior to taking the helm at RedZone: PartsZone, a provider of parts for construction equipment; ProLine Services, a provider of railcar manufacturing and maintenance; and Blue Fish Labs, a software application development company.
“I’ve mixed and melded all my backgrounds in order to grow businesses,” Close said. “I’ve done a number of businesses in very diverse industries, but this is by far the most fun I’ve had. Working with robots is great and the wastewater industry is fantastic to be involved with.”
Like anyone with technical acumen, Close and his investors delved into research of the wastewater industry, specifically the trenchless market, which is so closely tied to wastewater. “It was amazingly interesting how pipes were inspected and the number of manufacturers involved in inspection and the great need to inspect pipe,” he said. “Historically, CCTV was the pre-eminent form of pipe inspection. We decided to bring on some new inspection technologies and ways of characterizing pipes.”
RedZone’s goal was not to just inspect sewer pipes, but to do so in a way in which it could assist municipalities in developing a plan to address their pipe maintenance and rehabilitation needs. One of the company’s mantras is: “We inspect to clean rather than clean to inspect.” What that means is from the RedZone inspections, municipal wastewater officials can determine and identify which pipes actually need to be cleaned or rehabbed, thus saving taxpayers thousands of dollars.
“It just helps them apply the money in a more efficient fashion,” Close said, especially during these challenging economic times. “Our focus is on the system and helping them understand their underground assets.”
When RedZone first made the conversion to the wastewater industry, it relied on CCTV initially while it was developing its premier products. For larger diameter pipe, RedZone developed the Responder in 2005, a platform technology that uses multiple sensors to characterize larger diameter pipe.
After three years of development, RedZone unveiled its Solo robot in 2009. This robot focuses on smaller diameter pipe or collection pipe, ranging from 8 to 12 in. in diameter. Unlike traditional technology, Solo inspects pipe without an operator present and the results are coded offline. One of its unique features is that it is the first fully commercially available, autonomous mobile robot in this industry. “It’s a free-ranging, fully autonomous robot that you put into the pipe and uses the on-board computer to control and manage its mission,” Close said.
A third product of RedZone is its ICOM3 software as a service model software, which provides a suite of integrated inspection, maintenance and asset program management solutions using their interrelationships for optimizing asset management. This includes combining inspection observations, video and imagery of the inspections, physical characteristics of assets, hydraulic characteristics, in-situ characteristics, risk and criticality characteristics and maintenance histories into a complete knowledge base of your assets. The company’s software is handled at its San Ramon, Calif., office.
Solo is RedZone’s red carpet or signature product and was the technical concept of Red Whitaker, who still serves a critical role at the company he founded. But Close is also quick to note that Solo became a reality based on the hard work of RedZone’s development group.
“We are an aggressive company and we don’t mind stepping outside of the mold,” Close said. “What I focus on is being on the cutting edge and not the bleeding edge of technology. We have an outstanding and innovative workforce that loves robots, working on these projects and learning the nuances of the sewer industry.”
The goal of the RedZone products are to work in concert with each other — robots, cameras and software — to provide a better understanding of what is going on in sewer pipes and then develop a plan to address their maintenance and rehabilitation.
Expanding RedZone’s Reach
RedZone is firmly established in the North American market, with its customer base spread throughout the United States and into Canada that includes more than 100 cities, large and small. The company’s reach has also extended beyond the North American borders into the Asian market, working in Singapore with a licensee that also covers Hong Kong and Malaysia. To be successful internationally, companies must re-adjust their philosophies, Close said.
“You have to understand the way other countries work and that the needs they have are not necessarily reflective of the needs that we have in the United States,” he explained. “It’s important to understand the culture and what the needs of our customers are locally.”
And that has been a key to RedZone’s success these last six years: knowing what its customers need and focusing its energies on satisfying that need. “Many executive directors of wastewater facilities have come to me over the years and said, ‘Eric, why can’t you just invent a wand that you can wave above my pavement and tell me all the places where I have to fix and maintain my pipes?’” said Close. “It’s actually a very difficult problem that our industry is faced with. Our entire goal was to simplify the challenge of managing this very complex, abundant underground infrastructure.”
Close sees the current wastewater industry as “highly fragmented,” and that there has been a tremendous amount of improvement over the last five to 10 years in terms of what can be done using rehab technologies, such as cured-in-place-pipe (CIPP). He also sees the market still growing in the midst of a poor economy affecting so many other facets of the construction market.
“We saw last year that there was a delay in some of the stimulus funding and that there was some delayed purchasing as you went through the year,” Close said. “But we’ve seen [funding] free up significantly and frankly it’s a pretty ripe market right now. We see market conditions as very positive and we see them continuing to be so for some period of time.”
In today’s market, he believes customers face four key challenges in addressing their sewer systems: insufficient time, money, resources and technology. With time, customers have to be able to inspect their whole system within a five- to seven-year period as some are under a consent decree or have never inspected their pipe before. With money, everyone knows that municipalities are hard-strapped for funds and that they are looking to do more with less. With regard to resources, they are working a limited workforce.
“Typically when you have an industry that has lack of time, money and resources, that’s where technology steps in to bridge that gap,” Close said. “And that’s what we focus on — applying technology to really release those time, money and resource constraints.”
With technology and software, everyone is always working on what’s next. When asked what is in store for RedZone in the next five to 10 years, Close said, “We see a great opportunity in continuing to do what we are doing, which is really helping our clients gain more understanding and more visibility into their buried abundant underground infrastructure. It’s really about simplifying this process of inspecting, understanding and planning so when they have to spend a lot of money to fix or maintain their pipes, they are doing so in the most efficient and most cost-effective fashion.”
Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.