April 30, 2020

Duke Engineer Focusing On Robotics Sees Oil And Gas At The Forefront Of Technology

Duke Engineer Focusing On Robotics Sees Oil And Gas At The Forefront Of Technology


“I joke that I made either the stupidest or the smartest decision of my life,” Dianna Liu says laughing, “when I left my refinery job.” Liu is president and founder of ARIX Technologies, Inc., described on the company’s website as an early stage, venture backed robotics and data analytics start-up or, as Liu calls the company’s main attraction, “a pipe-crawling robot.”

“I loved working in the refineries, but I wanted to build something that, if it even helped one person, would be the accomplishment of a dream.”

Before graduating in 2012 with a dual major in mechanical and biomedical engineering from Duke University, Liu interned with a number of impressive companies in the medical field, but says she was interested in the oil and gas industry because she saw it as being at the forefront of technology in many ways. 

“Step foot into a refinery or onto a rig; it’s an engineering marvel.”

Hired by an oil major after graduation, Liu says, “I loved the culture. It was all about safety, efficiency, doing things well and morally. Everyone was working as a team. They challenged you, but they also mentored you. I cherish the experience. They didn’t care if you were a guy or a girl or what your background was. I’m an Asian girl, but I could have been a purple dinosaur and I felt like it wouldn’t have mattered!” she says laughing.

Liu believes it was that atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement that gave her the confidence to step out on her own in 2015. “I’m really grateful to the company. If I hadn’t gotten that kind of support, I don’t know that I would have dared to try something like this. We were judged on the merit of the project and not who was doing it.”

In an opinion piece written late last year, Occidental Petroleum

OXY
president and CEO Vicki Hollub said, “We must adopt the mindset of technology companies, attracting young scientists and engineers keen to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges. As we navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the future of oil and gas will rest on its workforce.”

Growing up in the open spaces of the Texas Hill Country sparked Liu’s imagination and, at age 11, she created an online game for girls involving horses. “That was my first foray into entrepreneurship.” The computer game, which became fairly popular (and is still in existence), was the harbinger of the robot. “I learned to code from that and it’s what led me to engineering.” 

While working in the field, Liu saw firsthand some of the challenges the oil and gas industry faces but for which it doesn’t always have the precise technological solution. Her education in both mechanical and biomedical engineering made her wonder whether the two disciplines could be married, learning and adapting ideas from each other.

“That was the spark,” says Liu, who was working on an MBA at Yale (‘18), where she won the Miller Prize for Disruptive Technology, that eventually resulted in the creation of ARIX in mid-2017 and later the pipe-crawling robot. 

Headquartered in downtown Houston, with a testing facility at 290 and the Beltway,Liu assembled a small team whose members she says modestly are “much smarter than I am,” and worked under the guidance of Shell GameChanger Dr. Alicia Williams, whom Liu says, “is the superstar behind the program. She was really the catalyst for it.”

The GameChanger program works with start-ups and businesses on unproven early-stage ideas with the potential to affect the future of energy. “We look very closely at the team behind each proposal,” Williams states. “Dianna is the true gamechanger here. Her team delivered beyond expectations for each milestone during our time together, ultimately proving ARIX is a contender for robotic inspections.”

The venture capital arm of Stanley Black & Decker

SWK
led the initial seed investment round. “We’re very grateful to them for taking a chance on us,” Liu says, “and have been so appreciative of their help since then.”

ARIX has begun working with a few early partners on iterative field work, focusing first on corrosion under the insulation in refinery pipes to discover where more detailed inspections are needed. The engineers are already working on upgrades to the robot while determining whether the current model can add immediate value to certain aspects of pipeline maintenance. 

“It’s a question of where we can help the most,” Liu says. “This whole industry is so supportive of people who take the initiative. The culture supports people who want to try something new and be more innovative in tech.”



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