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StoneAge is all aboard on automating its products

Water-blast tool maker inks deal with Navy to computerize its cleaning devices
Kerry Siggins, left, talking with Kristi Gerhardt, an international shipping specialist, says the contract with the U.S. Navy will help it automate its water-blast tools, and that should provide new products for civilian use down the road as well. (Durango Herald file)

StoneAge Inc., Durango’s manufacturer of high-pressure industrial cleaning tools, has signed a contract for a pilot project with the U.S. Navy that might lead it to providing computer-controlled water-blast cleaning equipment for all the country’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.

As a bonus, StoneAge will be able to commercialize the product – meaning it will be able to bring automated water-blast tools, controlled by a computer brain that StoneAge is calling the “Compass” to everyday customers. Producers of ethanol and paper pulp are especially interested.

This is a rendering of the "Compass" a computer unit that will guide a waterblast tool called a "Sentinel" to clean tubes in heat exchangers on Navy aircraft carriers and submarines. StoneAge has a pilot project to try the devices on one ship. If successful, the devices will be used on all the Navy's nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines. (Courtesy of StoneAge)

“The great thing about a project like this is we get to partner with the Navy to develop the product, fine-tune the product, and then it will be available for commercial sale to other clients, or at least a version of it,” said StoneAge CEO Kerry Siggins.

Earlier this week, StoneAge sent to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam a device it calls a tractor, which feeds line to users operating the lance – the gun that shoots out pressurized water at up to 40,000 pounds per square inch.

The shipment to Pearl Harbor is an early version of the more sophisticated device that’s coming.

In September, StoneAge plans to ship for trials the Sentinel attached to its Compass to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

Development of the automated water-blast tool allows StoneAge to take full advantage of a company it bought in March 2020 called Breadware Inc. of Reno, Nevada.

Breadware, is an internet-of-things, or IoT, developer, and it provides StoneAge the electrical engineers, computer scientists and firmware developers to automate its water-blast tools.

“They add significant capabilities and help us build IoT-enabled products, so we can have true robots that eventually can clean with very little human interaction, but they also can collect data a customer can use to make better decisions,” Siggins said.

Siggins said the purchase of Breadware at the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic was a difficult decision, but in the end the acquisition was necessary to move StoneAge forward.

“It was difficult. The acquisition was made in March (2020), the early days of the pandemic, and there were a lot of unknowns,” she said. “But we knew that the future of our industry will be IoT-enabled products that collect data and give usable information to improve safety and efficiency.”

Bill Shires, solutions director at StoneAge, said the Sentinel is a specific product, custom built for the Navy with a lance that articulates to get into tight spaces.

The Navy would use it to clean tubes in heat-exchangers, the cooling units in its nuclear-powered vessels.

Currently, a sailor cleans maybe a thousand tubes in a heat exchanger, and automating the process will make the job safer and increase efficiency, Shires said.

The Sentinel, a waterblast tool, will be paired with a computer to automate cleaning of tubes in heat-exchange units on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. If a pilot project between the Navy and StoneAge Inc. is successful it would lead to StoneAge providing the product for all the Navy’s nuclear-powered vessels. (Courtesy of StoneAge)

The Sentinel and the Compass should be able to do the job in 35% less time than it takes a sailor. Also, it shouldn’t miss cleaning any tubes, something that can happen when the cleaning is done manually.

“An operator needs to have line of sight to be able to see where he’s moving our tractors across a thousand tubes,” Shires said. “It can be very fatiguing. There’s opportunities for the operator to miss a tube. He just has to be focused on the work he’s doing, and these operators work seven- or eight-hour shifts.”

The Sentinel combined with the Compass would mean a sailor could operate the device from a desk giving orders to the machine over a network.

Providing data is not only valuable to the Navy – it will tell you which tube was plugged and how long it took to clean it – the data also will be helpful to StoneAge, which will learn how many hours the system was used for a single job, the pressures that were being used and other information.

“It will be a real fantastic way for us to monitor the life of consumable items – the life of the entire unit, and how the system is actually being used in the field,” Shires said.


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