Robots greatly improve laundry sustainability

After generations of focusing on optimizing earnings laundries have focused more on the overall sustainability of their production over the past few years. Today, the well-being of the employees and concern for the environment are oftentimes entirely in line with the desire for better earnings.

The ODIN X-ray automatically scans every garment for foreign objects like pens, scissors, lipsticks, or similar.

This development is also being observed by Inwatec. CEO Mads Andresen in the past 10 years has visited laundries of all types around the world to identify their concerns and challenges.

“The laundries have always been interested in how robots, automation solutions, and artificial intelligence can improve efficiency and thereby the economy. But the trend of thinking sustainably is seriously reflected now. Today, the focus is also on creating good conditions for the employees and on protecting the environment,” says Mads Andresen.

Fewer washes save resources and reduce the impact on the environment
While robots are ideal for performing for the many unilateral movements and the heavy, dirty work in the sorting, technology can also help the laundries to avoid fault washing due to incorrect sorting or hidden foreign elements in the pockets of the garments.

Ink stains like these are prevented by using the ODIN X-ray system

That argument weighed heavily at Victor Vask in Denmark, where CEO Kenn Ivan Kjellberg has invested in an X-ray solution to avoid damaged garments.

“Our investment is primarily done for economic and labor law reasons. But there is also an environmental aspect to it as the X-ray machine can save us from throwing out 100 kilos of damaged clothing when we avoid pens in the machines. And that part is equally important to us,” Kenn Ivan Kjellberg emphasizes.

The same conclusion has been reached in Norway, where the dominant laundry player, Nor Tekstil, has focused on X-ray detection to ensure sustainability.

“Besides the obvious fact that we can free several employees from doing the hard work, there is the environmental component. The textiles are significantly more durable when we reduce the number of error washes. The production of cotton has a large economic impact; therefore, it is essential that we can use the clothes until they are worn out instead of replacing 80 kg because of an overlooked pen in a pocket,” says Ove Belsvik, director at Nor Tekstil.

The use of technology increases the quality of sorting
While the X-ray solution help removing unwanted items before the washing machine, automatic sorting with RFID scanners ensures that the individual piece of garment is washed correctly.

This solution is used at ALSCO Padova, where customers demand that the clothing be tracked through the process. This way, ALSCO can handle and sort 20,000 pieces of clothing daily in many different washing programs without the risk of operator error.

Automatic sorting enables a higher number of sorting categories with fewer errors.

“We sort in the clothes in a system with 24 silos, and currently we run with 14 different programs for colored clothes and six various washing programs for white garments. With our new setup, where the clothes are automatically sorted with RFID chips, we ensure that the clothes get the right treatment required by the specific customer,” Production Manager Marco De Grandis explains.

At Fornet in Nantong, the desire was the same as at ALSCO, and here the machines also deal with different types of clothing.

“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 mapped them with different sorting logic, so we have separate items for dry cleaning and get the right colors and textile types in the right washing machines,” explains Lei Pai, Manager at Fornet.

Faster approach to new technologies
The increased focus on sustainability has also made it easier for businesses to embrace technology in production plans. Several laundry organizations have introduced new technology in stages to get started quickly and to test the hypotheses in practice.

A THOR robot separator can be added as an extension to a stand-alone ODIN X-ray scanner at any time to fully automate soiled handling.

“Our solutions are modular, meaning that the laundries can begin with a stand-alone X-ray machine, and then add sorting, upscale with multiple lines or anything that is needed. The laundries can act quickly, and it fits well with the market today”, says Mads Andresen, who is attracting interest in Inwatec solutions all over the world.

“The industry has traditionally been quite reluctant to apply new technology, but today we feel that there is a great desire to act. There are global challenges in finding labor, the environmental problems are apparent to all of us, and finally, of course, companies like to make money. That equation is difficult to solve without automation,” concludes the Inwatec founder.


Read more about how automation optimized processes and improved the laundry’s environmental impact at:

Inwatec at the Laundry Experience Event in Belgium

In September 2019, the Laundry Experience Event was attended by many experts from the laundry industry, including Mads Andresen, CEO of Inwatec, who was invited on the first day to give a presentation on the latest automation and robotics solutions for textile management.

The event was organized by Vematex, the Dutch organization of laundry suppliers, and took place at the Clova laundry in Wommelgem near Antwerp. The two-day event opened the opportunity for visitors from the largest laundries in the Benelux region to discuss the latest developments and innovations in the field of automatic laundry handling together with the invited suppliers.

Inwatec was particularly pleased that the event took place at the Belgian laundry Clova, as one of Inwatec's sorting systems for soiled garments is automating the laundry's processes already. This enabled the visitors to experience Inwatec's robot solutions live and in action after hearing about it in a presentation.

View impressions of the event and Inwatec's installed solution below:

Public laundry aims for more automation

The public laundry in the Swedish city of Alingsås, located 50 kilometers outside Gothenburg, has been through a significant automation process this spring. The goals were to improve the working environment and to increase productivity.

Malin Schiller, Manager at Tvätteriet Alingsås

“The management of the laundry has decided that we must work long term and invest in the laundry. Initially, it is about the working environment for our employees, but of course, the economy is also an essential factor as well,” tells manager Malin Schiller.

The new soiled side sorting setup at Alingsås includes four robot separators and two x-ray scanners, and up to 6.000 pieces of garments can be processed every hour with a minimum of human interaction.

“Before, we had 12 people examining the clothes at the light tables. They turned the clothes inside-out and examined all pockets to check for foreign objects. Now it’s handled by the machines, and we have only one operator on the task. The machine finds out by X-ray whether there is anything in the clothes or not,” Service Manager Cora Magnusson explains.

Cora Magnussen, Service Manager at Tvätteriet Alingsås

According to the service manager, most of the time was used on performing redundant pocket inspections.

“It is only 2-4 percent of the clothes that has something hidden in the pockets. It can be anything – things from care, phones, money, and so on. But most of the pockets are empty, and now the machine ignores those clothes in the process. It means that we have a safer and faster delivery now,” Cora Magnusson tells.

The extra hands are now allocated to other tasks in the laundry, and the daily routines are changing in a rotational schedule to keep the workload as low as possible.

Cora Magnussen adds: “Now it is less tedious, so it is better for ergonomics, body, and health. Getting to work is more fun when you have varied tasks.”

Laundry employee Sofia Wangvald agrees on that assumption. She has been working at Alingsås both before and after the new setup:

Now, only those garments containing foreign objects have to be handled manually by the laundry’s employees.

“We become more like mechanical engineers than wear workers, as we were when we checked all the pockets and all the clothes. The machine scanning the pockets is the most significant development that has happened at the laundry in the five years I have been here. It is an excellent investment for the future,” Sofia Wangvald tells.

According to manager Malin Schiller, there will be more investments in the future.

“Investing in the picker and x-ray scanner is a starting point for our continued development in the laundry. You could say that this is the first phase, and we are working hard to move towards more automation where possible,” Malin Schiller reveals.

Streamlining and automation ensures jobs

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.

MidtVask’s employees are very happy about the new X-ray scanning results

“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.

Inwatec’s Sorting System was directly integrated with the existing bag system.

The Danish Robots and Automation Adventure has just begun

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.

CEO Mads Andresen on the THOR Robot Separator

“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.

Modular Robots are created during Flexible Working Manners

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!

Smart People – Smart Robots

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!

Nor Tekstil’s specialized laundry for hotels is a success

 

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.

Continue reading below the slideshow:

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.

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.