Interview with Pernille Lundvang, Laundry Manager at MidtVask in Aarhus
MidtVask in Aarhus, Denmark, is a publicly owned company which only cleans for the public and especially for the hospital industry.
Here, laundry manager Pernille Lundvang also sees the necessity to improve efficiency for lowering prices – and thus stay in the fight for public tenders, which are the only ones the laundry are allowed bid in on as a publicly owned company.
For the same reason, the 150 employees, which are distributed in almost 40 nationalities, are very keen about the introduction of modern technology in the company, which was named Denmark’s Best Workplace in 2018.
For example, MidtVask has invested in Inwatec’s Soiled Side-sorting-system that automates the handling of dirty garments coming into the laundry.
“We have a goal of being among Denmark’s healthiest workplaces. That is why automation and, among other things, the Soiled Side Sorting-system from Inwatec is something that really moves us in the right direction. It removes needles and removes scissors, so there is no risk of cutting. At the same time, we avoid a lot of unilateral, repeated work. So it helps to better both our competitiveness and our working environment and health,” tells laundry manager Pernille Lundvang.
“There is often someone who asks if the employees are not afraid of the strong streamlining we are doing with Inwatec. No, on the contrary. If we do not optimize all we can, we will lose our work. Automation and robotics are the only way we can be competitive and ensure that we have a workplace in the future. So from all colleagues we have a great thumbs up – that’s what we have to do,” says Pernille Lundvang, who can also see a swift ROI on the system.
“We have saved two employees compared to our old setup. So it’s a machine that has an ROI of fewer than three years. It’s excellent. At the same time, our products are made with care and care for the people who work here. It is not only to raise efficiency and to lower the prices. Our customers also really like to do business with us because they know that we focus on being a workplace with great emphasis on being diverse and because we have a good working environment,” she underlines.
In a recent analysis, the national robot partnership Robotics Alliance, for the first time put figures on the development of the Danish robotics industry. Not surprisingly, the review shows that the overall contribution of the Danish robot and automation industry to the Danish economy is increasing significantly.
While today’s 300 automation and robotic companies traded $ 2.7 billion in 2018 the number is estimated to grow up to $ 7.6 billion by 2025, bringing the industry on par with established industries such as those of fashion or food ingredients.
The analysis shows that the activity is most significant in Denmark’s robot capital, Odense, where Inwatec operates. Selling robot and automation solutions for the laundry industry, Inwatec has experienced a tenfold increase in sales over the past five years, and director Mads Andresen has no doubt that the positive stories about and experiences with Danish technology have spread widely around the world.
“The level of education in Denmark is very high. This means that a lot of young people graduate from our universities and that talents from all over the world are coming to Denmark to finish their education. Also, because of the concentration of companies in the robot cluster Odense Robotics, we have plenty of jobs to offer to skilled people who want to join the robot industry. And it is essential for all of us to get the labor we need,” says Mads Andresen, who founded Inwatec in 2009 and employs nearly 50 employees today.
“I was educated in the city, and I lived here when I founded Inwatec. Obviously, it often goes like that, and there is no doubt that the cluster of robot companies has grown considerably because of all the people educated in Odense. Also, the city’s efforts to strengthen the education and facilities for the companies only stimulate further development. In addition to the robot companies, the figures in the analysis show that success in one industry pays off for subcontractors in other industries. And we have only seen the beginning,” states Mads Andresen.
The whole world is demanding an increase in production
In some countries, the use of robots and automation solutions accounts for 10 percent of their total national growth, the analysis illustrates. Furthermore, the industry’s productivity per employee increases with the number of robots.
While so far mainly Korea, Japan, and Germany have invested in robots, not least because of the automotive industry, they can be found all over the world more and more.
This also applies to the laundry industry:
“We have our biggest market in Europe right now, but growth is strong in the US, Japan, China and the rest of Asia and Australia, and soon we will probably have machines on all continents. The biggest challenge is to ensure that we have the hands and brains that we need to develop and produce. But there is a strong political will to build on the success in Odense and in Denmark, and therefore I am not afraid that we cannot find the labor force”, says Mads Andresen, who expects both revenue and the number of employees at Inwatec to double within the coming years.
Today, 8,500 Danes are employed in the robot industry, and according to the analysis, there are prospects for up to 17,000 more jobs in the industry until 2025. Hence, more investments in education and research within robots and automation are required.
Find more information in English here.
For the full report in Danish click here.
Ann-Sofie and Anders are currently writing their thesis, together with Inwatec, to finish their bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. Their project is practical-oriented, just like their whole study program at SDU in Odense.
Anders already did his internship at Inwatec and discovered the opportunities to further work on the challenge, they are now dealing with in their thesis. Anders says: “We selected Inwatec as a collaboration partner since I already experienced how easy and satisfying it is to work with the company.” The students are free regarding their work location and can switch between the office, the university or any other place they feel most productive.
Modular setup and simple aesthetics
Not only student projects are organized flexible, but also Inwatec’s systems are flexible and scalable due to their modular design. Ann-Sofie is fascinated: “Every robot can be connected to make the handling of laundry articles as intelligent and reasonable as possible.”
In case you are now curious to learn more about our modular setup, check it out here.
The students are working on improving a major part of one of Inwatec’s robots. They are constructing a component and calculating several aspects like carrying capacity or overall costs. Ann-Sofie and Anders target to back up all their decisions with analyses. “Our focus is to reduce space and material while providing increased safety,” both students agree.
Anders is impressed by the simplicity of Inwatec’s machines: “Although we are dealing with innovative robotics, the systems are build up straightforward and the functionality stands in the first place.”
Bringing in a breath of fresh air to never stop improving
Inwatec attaches great importance to bring a breath of fresh air into their development processes and to constantly improve their machines. “We are really free to implement our own concepts and our colleagues guide and support us whenever needed, but they would never restrict our ideas,” tells Ann-Sofie.
“We are provided with all essential information and data, helping us to really understand all processes and giving the opportunity to get the best out of our project –for Inwatec as well as for ourselves,” adds Anders.
We wish you the best of luck to finish your thesis project and we are sure you will rock the upcoming presentation!
Benedicte and Mads are studying towards a Diplom within Integrated Design at SDU in Odense. They are trained to take the challenge and develop new products, less emphasizing on detailed calculations but more on knowing the overall strategies and approaches including different perspectives and departments. They are educated to be generalists, being able to gain more specific knowledge within one area if required.
Their final project is not a theoretical thesis but more a practically oriented report that should include, engineering, design, and economic aspects and should be conducted in a company ensuring hands-on experience. Important in here is to justify decisions and methods. Within their practical project, they should develop their idea to a final concept.
“My main goal is to make the laundry robots smarter.”
Mads started as an intern at Inwatec and took Benedicte, his fellow student, on board. At Inwatec they had the opportunity to build up process stages of a new robot and to test their concept via different prototypes, that are simulating the single steps of the future machine. Mads is certain: ” My main goal is to make the laundry robots smarter.”
Benedicte is happy about: “The atmosphere is really positive and we were included in the team from day one.” In the very first week, the students got the possibility to visit two laundries and to gain a deeper insight into the industry, the needs, and potential pain points.
“Inwatec is a great company to write the project with. They understand student’s needs and they are interested in putting the educational requirements as a priority,” says Mads. The students hence were also able to conduct tests, that were not primarily Inwatec’s needs, but were required by university-rules.
The robot, they worked on, was requested by a customer. Very important for the students was to get a real-life scenario and to obtain actual data. These criteria were definitely fulfilled and the Inwatec supported them from the very beginning to the end of their project. They additionally had their own office space to freely develop ideas.
Benedicte and Mads really enjoyed working with Inwatec. Whenever they had questions or issues, colleagues provided helping hands. A programming specialist supported the two students during their whole project and programmed the necessary codes to make the testing possible.
Trust and freedom lead to innovative robots
“We could test our ideas by building up prototypes in original size and we were also supported in buying material,” says Mads. Also, a modified version of the existing machines was included in the testing phase.
Benedicte adds: “It was a great feeling that everyone in Inwatec trust in our work and that we were treated as experts in our field, although we are still studying.“
In the end, both agreed: “It is a pity that we just have one semester and that this time is of course not enough to develop our idea to the very end.”
Mads furthermore starts to work full time at Inwatec from February. He is looking forward to joining the Laundrynerds as Project Engineer with tasks across sales, sales support, construction, installations, and development.
Good luck to both of you with the final project and your future career life!
In May 2018, the Norwegian Nor Tekstil celebrated the grand opening of a new laundry in Oslo. This laundry was built specifically to handle hotel laundry, and it's inauguration was accompanied with high expectations.
Half a year later, CTO Ove Belsvik acknowledges that the concept has proven to be an excellent idea:
"We think long-term, and we wanted a very modern facility based on innovative technology, and we feel that we have gotten that in Oslo. We had several laundries, and we wanted to move our hotel production to a single plant to make it more efficient. Here we do not wash for hospitals or other customers, it is exclusively hotels. In this way, we are able to specialize the production lines," Ove Belsvik explains.
The brand new laundry in Oslo includes an Inwatec Stack Storage Solution, which keeps the washed and ironed linen in its buffer before packaging and shipping. With this setup, the production can be streamlined as much as possible.
At the same time, the new setup was designed with a wish for improved workstations for the employees, and Ove Belsvik is pleased that this part of the solution also has proven to be a success.
Nor Tekstil is Norway’s dominant player in the laundry industry. The company serves a significant share of Norwegian hotels, hospitals, and nursing homes, as well as a large number of customers in the offshore industry and other firms in the industrial sector.
"The stack storage solution from Inwatec has had a significant impact on employees. We work with HES (Health, Environment, and Safety), where we look at ergonomics and workflows, and we have significantly less stress now. It's no longer the machines that regulate the pace. When we have a buffer in front, the manual handling at the packing station is done at a reasonable pace, and we've got significantly better ergonomics for our employees. It is very positive," says Ove Belsvik, who is certain, that the set up in their new laundry will set the standards for future laundries:
"We are convinced that what we have built in Oslo is the future. We also see that after half a year of operation we have had excellent results with the combination of our five ironer lines and the stack storage," he ends.
Find more information about the Stack Storage here.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.