How the northeast Ohio startup is using robotics and precision science to move beyond stencils
Every day, we drive over countless markings on the ground, taking for granted how they got there and how important they are. Painted symbols tell you where to turn, which lanes to use and how to park. But did you know that the process of painting those symbols on the ground is not only expensive, it’s dangerous? Thankfully, Cleveland startup RoadPrintz is solving both problems at once. The company uses robotics and precision to remove danger and human error from the process.
“RoadPrintz is developing an operator-driven, truck-mounted robotic pavement painting system for roadway markings other than long, straight lines,” said co-founder Sam Bell. “We can paint things like turn arrows, bicycle symbols, school zones and many others. Right now, a dollar of paint for a straight line costs 10 cents in labor. A dollar of paint in the form of one of these markings costs about $10 in labor. It’s a huge swing in expenses, primarily because the traditional method is a road crew using stencils, standing in the road waiting for paint to dry. It’s literally the metaphor for boredom, and it’s incredibly dangerous and wasteful.”
RoadPrintz isn’t just motivated by cost savings. In 2019 alone, two northeast Ohio road painters were killed and another was seriously injured when being struck by cars as they painted. Bell said that danger is an unnecessary part of the process, and it isn’t just about removing workers.
“We need to fix this problem,” he said. “We have an independent cost-analysis that looked at our system and determined that we will save approximately 42 percent on labor versus traditional methods. Some people ask me if our technology will displace workers. But companies that do this work are so busy, there’s an ever-growing backlog of work that needs to be done. And the companies already have trouble fielding a full crew to do all of this. So we have a labor shortage that’s putting a lot of pressure on an already stressed and dangerous industry.”
The company’s tech was developed by co-founder Wyatt Newman at Case Western Reserve University and features precision down to the centimeter. The robotic arm paints designs that are mapped into cloud databases to help autonomous vehicles learn the areas. It’s adept at copying existing designs for repainting and is even quieter, allowing nearby operators to hear their surroundings better. Factoring in that kind of variety is an important part of the RoadPrintz method, which wants to take a bigger-picture look at the process, its outcomes and shortcomings.
“If you can make it safer and you can reduce the labor costs, you can make everything more affordable and you end up with an overall safer environment,” Bell said. “We look very holistically at the entire enterprise. Safety is a huge priority because the cost savings comes with it.”
If all goes as planned, you could see RoadPrintz trucks across the country. Bell said he sees the company’s software as their centerpiece, with the trucks and physical tech a delivery method for that groundbreaking software. They’re working with Akron’s QT Equipment to repurpose existing trucks, with the goal to equip and sell the programmed trucks to crews around the United States. They already have a working prototype, and are planning to build a “fleet” to work with beta-testing partners that have expressed interest and will provide data to help them improve the design.
“We see ourselves like Apple,” Bell said with a laugh. “You walk into an Apple Store and buy an iPhone and, for them, the important thing is that you bought their software. It just happened to come with a phone. It’s the same for us. If you buy one of our trucks, we think the important thing is that you bought our software. But we also threw in a truck and a robot and a camera. We think of ourselves as a software company.”
RoadPrintz is a shining example of the teamwork and support happening every day across Ohio’s entrepreneurial environment. They received early support from Motoman Robotics in Miamisburg, work with paint experts at Mentor’s Aexcel and have partnered with GLIDE and Case Western Reserve’s technical transfer office. Even their headquarters is at Case Western’s Sears think[box], the largest open-access innovation center and makerspace in the United States.
“All of those partnerships have been tremendously important to us, and we’re really grateful to everyone who’s helped us along the way,” Bell said. “So many people have been available to help with the project, point us in the right direction and mentor us along the way. I can’t thank those people enough. We would not have gotten to this point without a lot of guidance, and we found it all in Ohio.”