Private customers subscribe to clothing in China

As technology evolves, business opportunities arise for industrial laundries.

An example of the development is found a mere two-hour drive outside of Shanghai in the city of Nantong, where Fornet Laundry Service has a production facility for an unusual customer who runs an internet clothing rental service.

The rental company addresses private customers who can choose which clothes they want to wear in the coming days with an internet-based subscription solution. When the garments need to be washed, they are returned to the rental company, and then the customer can choose another dress, a different pair of other trousers, or something else.

Production Manager at Fornet, Shanghai

 

To make the solution profitable and to keep the stock as low as possible, the returned items must be registered, quality assured, sorted, washed and pressed, so everything is ready for the next customer who has ordered it.

This is where Fornet Laundry Services comes into the picture, and in order to secure a fully integrated process the Fornet laundry is located in a building between two warehouses of the rental company.

Simple workstations provide high quality

Among the early investments was an Inwatec RFID sorting system that ensures that the clothes are sorted correctly before washing.

“It is a fascinating challenge when we have to handle so many different types of clothes. We have over 30,000 different garments in the database, and we have them mapped with different sorting logic, so we separate items for dry cleaning and get the right colors and textile types in the right washing machines,” explains Lei Pai, Manager at Fornet.

In the unpacking area, the operator unpacks the returned parcel, checks for defects and wear, scans the barcode to update the system, and then attaches the RFID chip with a rubber band. The chip and barcode are then paired in the system database and that way all relevant data on the individual piece of clothing is preserved and processed correctly.

Fornet is using HF-RFID chips, as it is the most suitable in terms of workstations spacing to avoid reading the wrong chip as it could happen with UHF.

Inwatec’s Software Engineer Tudor at the installation

“The customer has focused on keeping the workstations as ergonomic as possible, and also the HF-RFID solution made it economically viable to put scanners up at all tables in the unpacking department. That way everything is checked, scanned and marked correctly when the units are put on the conveyor belt that leads to the sorting for further processing, and we can maintain high production capacity without sacrificing quality,” Lei Pai states further.

 

Manual handling with an automatic twist

The initial quality control is carried out by employees, who will, among other things, handle damaged garments. There are no plans to do alternate that part of the setup, but when it comes to the rest of the process, Fornet will automate as much as possible.

“Sorting is very labour intensive, so it’s a big win that we can handle it automatically. We have 13 bins with static sorting to ensure that the same type of garments ends in the same place. If we move the positions we risk more human errors,” says Lei Pai, who in early September had a trouble-free grand opening of the laundry with a lot of interested guests.

“We have launched production with an existing inventory, where all garments were not mapped optimally in relation to how it should be washed. However, we are well prepared to adjust that on the run and with all the new garments that come in, we know how to get all parameters correctly set up, and our logic in the sorting can also be optimised accordingly,” Lei Pai tells.

 

Good service and openness

Fornet Laundry Services operates several laundries around China, and since the company previously purchased a larger Inwatec system with x-ray and RFID sorting to a department in Shanghai, there was no hesitation in sending a new order to Denmark when the project in Nantong was to be implemented:

“We were in Denmark to see a system in a hospital, and we realised that it was a great idea for the laundry in Shanghai. The solution has worked as we wanted, and we also had an excellent dialogue about this project too,” says Lei Pai, stressing that the distance from Nantong to Inwatec in Odense is irrelevant.

“When we need support for the technology or software, it’s always on time, and we were completely confident in choosing Inwatec again. There was no doubt,” says Lei Pai.


Artificial Intelligence and robots make laundries smarter and safer

The sophisticated picker of Inwatec’s Robot Separator calculates the best picking-point of the garments.

Many routines and procedures in the industrial laundries are both heavy, filthy and potentially dangerous, and on top of that, employees risk making mistakes when executing repetitive tasks.

That is why the now mature solutions combining robots, artificial intelligence and automation come into the picture.

Among the tasks which are most obvious to get rid of is the sorting and handling of soiled side garments. With modern technology it is entirely possible to obtain a setup where an absolute minimum of human interaction is needed:

The soiled garments can be dumped on conveyors where robots pick the items one by one to feed an X-ray scanner that detects unwanted items hidden in the pockets. At the same time, an RFID chip reader is registering the individual garment to decide how it should be sorted for proper handling further on in the system.

All those tasks can be achieved with employees only needed to empty the pockets on the garments that are rejected by the x-ray – and to ensure that the system is running as it is supposed to.

The X-ray system’s Artificial Intelligence automatically detects foreign items (e.g. pens)  and rejects the respective laundry article.

Endless opportunities

The challenge recently has been to make those robots smart enough to replace all these the human functions, but with artificial intelligence, it is now possible to let the computer analyze massive amounts of data and then find patterns that open new possibilities for the laundry business.

An example could be systems based on vision sorting alone. This is very useful in laundry businesses where the garments aren’t tagged because the items represent such a low value that the tagging doesn’t make sense as a business case.

Read more: The future is getting closer to Whangarei in New Zealand

The potential business cases in the laundry world that can be done with the help from automation, robots and AI today are practically endless.

As a rule of thumb, you can say, that if a typical person can perform a mental task with less than one second of thought, we can probably automate it using AI either now or shortly.

There is no doubt that the human employees at the industrial laundries will perform jobs that are not as hard or fatiguing as today, and more focused on servicing the end users or creating value to the company in another way.

The future is getting closer to Whangarei

The future of the industrial laundry depends on robots and automation, and eventually, all the players on the market will need to go in that direction. So is the prediction from Steve Baker, General Manager of Apparelmaster Whangarei from the New Zealand city of the same name.

“We have to think of a business model that supports the investments, but I’m sure that the next important steps in our business are to reduce physical labor and automate internal logistics in the industrial laundries, pushing bins and trolleys around all day and carrying stacks of laundry from one place to another isn’t a great use of staff skills,” Steve Baker says.

Recently he traveled Germany, Belgium, Norway and Denmark together with a group of like-minded colleagues and representatives from JENSEN and Inwatec to watch how the newest equipment is being implemented in other laundries right now, and Steve Baker is confident that there is a place for improvement in his business as well.

“For us traveling from New Zealand to Europe to look at the large-scale operations is just like looking into the future and helps us to define and clarify our business decisions with confidence. It would be easy to become insular and miss out on maximizing our business opportunities if we stayed at home in the South Pacific and didn’t look to learn something from the finest laundries in the world,” Steve Baker tells.

New machinery gives new possibilities

“I have been following the development of the new technology with x-ray-scanners, robots, and automatic sorting at Inwatec for a couple of years now. In the perfect world, we would invest in a fully automated production line straight away, but we still need to make some calculations before doing so and measure the cost benefits equation for our size and scale of operation,” the general manager admits.

Apparelmaster Whangarei is located in the northernmost part of New Zealand, serving the area from the top of the island “Cape Reinga” to the northern edge of Auckland city and the customers are offered different solutions for workwear and hospitality linen rental services.

The 80 employees care for everything in the rental service that includes sorting, washing, cleaning and repairing as well as a door-to-door collection and delivery of the laundry to the customers. Steve Baker believes that he can use the available hands in better ways with the use of new technologies:

“Our company isn’t that big, as we produce 65 tons a week. But today we are working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, so an upgrade in our production facility will make it easier for us to take in new projects without doing costly nightshifts,” he says.

Physical tasks will be phased out

Apart from the possible upgrade in efficiency, Steve Baker is also very interested in how to make the working conditions at Apparelmaster Whangarei more attractive for the employees.

“The regulations in Europe are stricter than in New Zealand, but I think that we all have to find solutions on how to get rid of all the heavy manual tasks in the future. Fortunately, I think that the technology is coming to a point where it is possible.”

“We have a lot of physical work in our laundry, and it is hard and fatiguing. It’s not dangerous, but it wears people out, and automation and robots will be needed to make the laundry a better place to work,” he says.

Towel feeding robot by Inwatec


We have now started development of a fully automated towel feeding robot. Building on the excellent work done by JENSEN. First robot prototype with use of artificial intelligence expected in 2018.

Feeding towels are hard and repetitive work. JENSEN has made a significant development work to automate this job with the JENSEN Evolution Cube. Inwatec will now add the newest robot technology and artificial intelligence to the solution, to make it more robust. This project moves the partnership between the JENSEN-GROUP and Inwatec to the next level.

“We are busy building the future in laundry automation. From day one it has been the idea that the engineers of Inwatec together with the engineering departments within JENSEN shall develop new solutions and services to automate all processes in heavy-duty laundries. We are sure that our next edition of the Evolution Cube will be a real game-changer that proves it,” says JENSEN-GROUP CEO Jesper Jensen.

“I see almost daily our LaundryNerds playing with towels, to see how we can find the corners, and feed the towels robust to a folding machine. There is no doubt that we need speedy robots, and 2D and 3D computer vision to solve this challenge. We see a breakthrough in using artificial intelligence in our machines today, with improved performance and reliability,” says Inwatec CEO Mads Andresen.

“Our Robot Separator is working better and better. We made the first prototype two years ago, and we have already five robots working every day in laundries. It has been a real challenge, and we thought that it was just a matter of finding the optimal pick point, and then grasp with an ordinary robot gripper. We could only achieve 60-70% success rate with this method! But even worse, too many double picks (5-10%). We also got the feedback from laundries, that traditional grippers destroy too many garments. The result was too low throughput. We realised that we had to develop a new gripper. We have been working on this since January, and the most recent test has shown pick rates of 97-99%, with way less double picks. We can’t wait to upgrade our existing robots with this new tool. We also have a pending patent on this new method, that is also more gentle to the textile.” says Mads Andresen.

“We will continue with our learnings from that process, and we have some pretty good ideas of how to develop a fast and reliable fully automated system that both separates and feeds. Towels come in all kinds of sizes and fabrics, and obviously, it isn’t a straightforward job to feed the folding machines, but the JENSEN team have got much experience also, and I think we are a long way down the road. So much I dare promise that the first prototypes will be assembled in our workshop in 2018,”

Inwatec’s firsts move into the laundries happened with the X-Ray Sorting System, and later a Robot Separator to further automatize the handling of the soiled textiles. More recently Inwatec has also produced a Stack Storage System for clean linen, and Mads Andresen reveals that Inwatec has many more innovations in the pipeline.

“Our motto has always been “We remove the dirty work”, and this is the first time we really remove the dirty work together with JENSEN,” says Mads Andresen.

Vraa Dampvaskeri focuses on innovation and automation

Robot technology, lots of automation and innovative use of all state-of-the-art technology in the market. Those are the ingredients in the recipe, which has secured the family-owned Vraa Dampvaskeri a position as one of the leading industrial laundries in Denmark. The headquarters locates in the northernmost part of Denmark in the town Vrå, but with branches in Aarhus, Fredericia, and Køge, Vraa Dampvaskeri services customers throughout the country as well as northern Germany and the southern part of Sweden.

According to CEO Jørgen Rasmussen, much of the explanation for the success of the company is that since the establishment in 1956, there has always been a strong will to invest in new technologies to make production as efficient as possible.

“Innovation and automation are in our blood at Vraa Dampvaskeri. For example, we have had our clothing tagged with chips since 1991, and in 1997 we took our automated sorting system into use. We have always been looking for improvements to our production line in general and especially in the field of automation,” says Jørgen Rasmussen, who recently invested in an Inwatec system, which will further improve the handling of the dirty laundry.

“The new automation options with a robot and an X-ray scanner have made us able to reduce the number of employees in the soiled site sorting, and it has enabled us to release some hands that we can use for something else. Regardless of how much we have automated over time, we have just become more people – now it’s just some other tasks they perform, “says Jørgen Rasmussen, who runs the family business with his two sons Thomas and Martin Rasmussen as well as daughter Stina Rasmussen who is CSR-manager.

Empty pockets a requirement in the food industry

With the new Inwatec-setup that connects to the existing sorting system, a robot separates the garments piece by piece before an X-ray machine checks for foreign elements hidden in the garments. If anything is found, the garment is automatically rejected for further inspection. This solution contributes to the fact that Vraa Dampvaskeri can also maintain its position as Denmark’s largest supplier of clothing to the food industry.

“We have a lot of customers in the food industry, where there is a strong focus on avoiding foreign objects in the clothes, and in this context, it was obvious for us to invest in an X-ray system that will enable us to meet that demand,” says Jørgen Rasmussen, who also has other gains by avoiding foreign elements in the laundry.

“When using the X-ray solution, we can reduce the administrative costs that come when undiscovered pens and the like ruins clothes. At the same time, it is important for our working environment to minimize the contact with the laundry, “explains the director about the solution.

 

Future solutions require data

Jørgen Rasmussen and his sons in Vraa Dampvaskeri are far from finished with the development. One of the next steps will be to utilize the possibilities for tracking the individual piece of laundry.

“Recently, we have started working on UHF-chipping the garments, which we do to get as much data as we can in the clothes cycle, and because it helps us to keep track of our inventory. This way we only need to invest in what we need,” says Jørgen Rasmussen, who see that the tracking gives further economic opportunities.

“Concerning the economy, collection and use of data is also an important part of the future laundry. When we make agreements with the customers that they should roll down the sleeves and empty their pockets, it is not always they remember it. When we track the individual piece of clothing, we can detect who’s forgetting this and, for example, send them a message that they’ll have to do better if they don’t want to pay for this service,” Jørgen Rasmussen adds.

The family behind Vraa Dampvaskeri: Martin, Stina, Thomas and Jørgen Rasmussen

Interested in the X-ray machine? Find more information about the ‘ODIN’ here

Fully automatic sorting of Soiled Workwear

Inwatec's sorting lines are build to fulfill each customers' needs. Thanks to modular design, the single machines can be added to a whole system according to specific wishes. In this case, the requested line consists of a Robot Separator, an X-ray machine and a vision based sorting system. 

The robot is fed by a conveyor and performs a separation of the garments. These separated garments are directly transferred to the X-ray machine, which detects foreign items like pens and scissors in the garment and automatically rejects these clothing items.

Accepted garments are forwarded to a vision based sorting, which, in this special case, sorts into either bright or dark.


Watch the full setup here:

The system's main components:

The Robot Separator has a high efficiency in separating textiles. It works fully automatic and therefore reduces the risk of cuts and needle injuries for your staff. We use modern 3D cameras and advanced software to find the best gripping points on the garments. 

All details about the Robot Separator. 

Inwatec's X-ray machine automatically detects foreign items such as pens, needles, lipsticks and more. It can handle up to 2,200 items per hour and rejects garments which contain foreign items. These rejected garments are forwarded to a special bin, where the detected foreign items can be removed from the garment's pockets.

Find more information on the X-ray Machine here.


You would like to automate soiled side sorting processes in your laundry as well? Contact us!

Easy and efficient management of stacked linen

Storage of clean linen between machinery and logistical areas has to be planned and thought-out well. Folded linen have to be parked before getting transported to the logistical areas. Using space efficiently while having a high input and output of stacks are highly demanded features for an innovative solution.

Inwatec aims to drive forward the automation of processes within laundries. Finding an efficient way to store linen was a challenge to be solved.

Inwatec’s linen stack storage meets the requirements to buffer cleaned linen after folding the textiles and before shipping them back to the customer. Time-consuming manual trolley handling can be replaced.


Check out the product details of the Stack Storage System.


The system consists of multiple conveyors that transport clean, stacked laundry items to the linen stack storage. The system handles about 225 stacks per hour. According to individual needs the input and output can be adjusted.

The stacks are automatically buffered and distributed on the integrated conveyors and shelves. The Stack Storage System offers a fully automatic storage and transportation of stacked laundry items. In total, it provides an easy and efficient management of clean, stacked laundry items.


Watch our Stack Storage System in action:


You would like to know more about our Stack Storage System? Contact us!

MåtteXpressen: Investments were necessary to continue growth

Find the detailed interview and videos of the setup at MåtteXpressen at the end of this article.

CEO Benjamin Rasmussen

In the late autumn 2017, the Danish Mat Service-company MåtteXpressen in the town of Køge made a complete renewal of the production. The former equipment was changed with a brand-new and highly automated production line.

The reason for this move was simple: Big success from the sales department forced CEO Benjamin Rasmussen to take a close look at the machinery.

“After 14 years of constant growth, we reached a maximum for our production, so we had to think in new solutions. We were working 24 hours a day and four days a week, one day with two shifts and then we had weekend work. There was no way to continue our growth if we did not start thinking about solutions where we could make it more efficient and wash more in less time,” Benjamin Rasmussen tells of the thoughts he had before investing in his new setup.

Tripled production volume per hour

“When we washed with the old system, we had two employees on our laundry side at a time. They worked both with in-sorting, sorting and rolling the mats. They washed about 500-600 kilos per hour, today we also have two employees on the team, but they can handle 1500-1600 kilos per hour,” Benjamin Rasmussen explains.

“That means that we wash around three times as many kilos of mats with the same labour. In that way, instead of producing 24 hours a day, we can do it within eight hours. Because of that, we could save two-thirds of our staff on the laundry side.”

The new system includes an Inwatec setup with an Inlet Buffer and a Mat Carousel that buffers the mats on the dirty and the clean site respectively, and finally, MåtteXpressen has a Hurricane Mat Roller with a sorting system added for the finishing of the mats before they are placed in the storage.

The Inlet Buffer for Mat Laundry helps to sort mats by e.g. material, such as nylon and cotton. The buffer can store up to 16 wash batches of soiled mats of each 100 kg.

Fast amortization and new growth perspectives

In total, the entire process is now run by two persons at a time, and Benjamin Rasmussen is sure that the investment will make new growth possible and payback in a short time span.

“We have cautiously calculated that we have a payback time of eight years, but I'm sure it's a little faster. We have set the payback relative to the current turnover, and as we expect a growth of 4-5 percent a year, we will have faster payback time,” he reckons.

The savings are found in gas, electricity and water because of the shortened work day, and as savings on the crew.

“We have had to say goodbye to some of our laundry staff, which can, of course, be a challenge, but those still here are looking forward to the fact that they do not have as many wearying procedures anymore. I can’t see the effect yet, but I'm sure we do not need the same replacements in our staff as we have it less laborious work today," Benjamin Rasmussen tells.


Watch the full interview with MåtteXpressen's CEO Benjamin Rasmussen:

The complete setup at the mat laundry MåtteXpressen:

Introduction to the Inlet Buffer for Mat Laundry and its functions:


View product details on the various parts of MåtteXpressen's production line:

Inlet Buffer for Mat Laundry - Mat Carousel - Hurricane Mat Roller - Mat Sorting Conveyor - Mat Trolley

No more washing machines damaged by nails at Liebhardt

Nails, screws, and tools have caused considerable damage to the washing machines in the German laundry Textilservice Liebhardt GmbH & Co. KG, Biberach in the past years. The investment in an Inwatec X-ray system dramatically changed that, and recently, Liebhardt’s machine was upgraded with new AI software to further reduce the error rate.

For managing director Eva Löffelhardt, there is no doubt that future laundry needs an increased degree of automation to keep pace with the market and to ensure the best working conditions for the employees.

“We have 85 employees in the company, and our primary focus is on workwear, blue and white workwear, but we also serve hotels and health clinics. New technology like Inwatec’s X-ray machine, helps our company to be competitive on the market,” explains Eva Löffelhardt. “By investing further in new technology, we expect the work to be easier for our employees, while continuing to deliver high quality to our customers.”

Since 2015, Eva Löffelhardt has been running the family business, founded in 1936, and is sure that the laundries of the future will change a lot: “The laundry industry desperately needs innovation. We can achieve that with modern and innovative robot solutions.The industry has been very reluctant so far.”

Eva Löffelhardt especially welcomes the fact that the loose screws, nails and tools hidden in the pockets no longer stop their washing machines. In addition, the garments can not be made unusable due to forgotten ball-point pens anymore. Equally valuable is the fact that the working conditions of the employees of the family business have improved:

“I also think a lot about the health of the employees. There are many repetitive movements in a laundry, and I have been incredibly happy to lessen these tasks. Employees are also unconditionally excited about the new technology, and they are proud to be in a company investing in modern technology. I do not doubt that the future offers solutions and opportunities that I have never thought about.”


Interested in the X-Ray Machine Liebhardt uses? Find details here.

Textilservice Liebhardt welcomes the future (video)

Nails, screws, and tools have caused considerable damage to the washing machines in the German laundry Textilservice Liebhardt GmbH & Co. KG, Biberach in the past years. The investment in an Inwatec X-ray system dramatically changed that, and recently, Liebhardt’s machine was upgraded with new AI software to further reduce the error rate.


Interested in the X-Ray Machine Liebhardt uses? Find details here.