Schilling Robotics Diary

A Brief History of Schilling Robotics

Founded in 1985, Schilling Robotics got its start with manipulators, the arms attached to robotic underwater vehicles to do their work in the deep. At midpoint, it worked its way into remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) largely because it perceived the need for a robotics platform that could be used in successive generations of vehicles, cutting the cost and halving the time it took to inject new technology into the marketplace. Finally, it is moving into subsea controls that will help companies safely and capably maintain their deep sea installations. In due course, more and more of the equipment it provides will remain on the bottom of the ocean for years on end, permanently docked at the well, able to sense and execute complex operations in an alien environment.

Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) equipped with manipulators are only a half century old. In the 1960s, their development at first was spurred by the U.S. Navy and scientific institutions such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Laboratory. In fact, some of Schilling’s first sales were to the Navy in San Diego. But in the 1980s deep sea oil exploration began to move further and further offshore into environments unsuited for human exploration, even by the most intrepid divers. Schilling itself came along as subsea oil and gas exploration began to surge, from a modest workshop of some 400 square feet in Davis, California, it has blossomed into a global company with offices in Davis, CA, Shingle Springs, CA, Houston, TX, and Aberdeen, U.K. (close by the North Sea). Sales have surged to well over $100 million.

Tyler Schilling, the founder, had gone to work for a specialized oceanographic equipment company in San Diego back in 1982. Immediately he got very involved with the invention of a better manipulator, there being none that was useful for oil exploration chores at the time. A ROV company in Florida had a keen need for an arm that could work. What the joint team devised was reasonably successful, but the management of his own company could not handle its subsequent growth and fell on hard times. Migrating back to his home in Davis, he decided that he could make a go of the manipulator business. Luring Wes Gerriets aboard, who was then VP of Sales for a local manufacturer, he and an extremely bright UC Davis grad student put together a better manipulator mousetrap. Storing their manipulator in a portable case, he and Wes, his co-founder, went on the road and had their first sales in 12 months.

As spelled out in the chronicle on its website, Schilling quickly developed a suite of manipulators that allowed it to seize ¾ of the manipulator market. New systems or upgrades were brought to market in 1987, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, and 1997. This rapid-fire development reveals two assumptions underlying Schilling’s strategy which carry into the present day. Since the ROV market, while growing, is not huge, competitors have been loathe to raise the capital, commit the resources, and make the commitment to the future that evolving technologies impose. Schilling has believed and bet on the future – that its market would expand fast enough to swallow its leading edge product solutions. But, as well, it knows that it has to bootstrap, to husband scarce resources, to invent the future with an R & D budget laced with faith but stocked with very few dollars. Hence, the world of subsea exploration is populated with iterations of its Titan manipulators. Belief in the future of its market and its ability to operate on a shoestring gave it a commanding position in its marketplace.

In December 1992 GEC Alsthom acquired Schilling Robotics in a private transaction. Though this relationship only endured for a decade, after which the now public company ALSTOM took a different strategic path, this partnership lay at the heart of several breakthroughs for Schilling. With the complete backing of its parent, Schilling in 1998 undertook the $20 million development of its Remote Systems Engine (RSE), the creation of which put it into the Remotely Operated Vehicle Business. This Engine is designed so as to provide an ongoing platform for each generation of ROVs that Schilling produces. That is, it does not have to re-invent the wheel each time it wants to push the envelope and create a more versatile ROV. Frugality, at the heart of its R&D, carried into the introduction of its ROV.

As importantly, the ALSTOM relationship underlines another core principal of Schilling’s development process. With scarce resources and a healthy market which still has a small base, another facet of the Company’s culture has proved vital. It has been able to forge strong partnerships with competitors, suppliers, customers, even acquirers. In the late 1980s, its advanced Titan manipulators cracked the market, because Norwegian companies, renowned for cutting-edge technology, were willing to buy its product. The U.S. Department of Energy found its product compelling and put it to work in cleaning up wastes at nuclear installations. Oceaneering, a major producer and operator of ROVs, found Schilling’s high performance Conan product to be best of class, and put it to work in its fleet. In the closely knit community of deep sea oil equipment, a great deal of one’s success is dependent on one’s ability to tightly network and to form enduring relationships with other companies that are probing the deep.

Today the Company is working on a host of applications for well maintenance and other aspects of controlling subsea producing wells. This collection of tasks is called “workover.” These workover tasks have been a routine part of land-based and shallow-water wells for many years, however, for deepwater use, the equipment is only now being developed. The need for remote control techniques is expanding by leaps and bounds in deep sea offshore petroleum exploration, production, processing, and maintenance. As well, military, scientific, and ocean energy uses are growing. Some 10 years ago, Schilling created a modular architecture designed to operate with agility in any manner of deep sea remote control applications. Schilling’s RSE allows customers to adapt techniques that have became commonplace on the factory floor to the seafloor of the deep ocean. This early design anticipated today’s burgeoning requirements – with some 40% of current hydrocarbons coming from the ocean floor. Between now and 2011, over 2000 new wellheads are scheduled to be installed in very deep waters. As Tyler Schilling is fond of saying, “We provide solutions that enable our customers to do on the seafloor what has become essential on the factory floor. The only difference is the amount of salt water.”

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