At the Swiss Army’s logistics base in Sursee, the ODIN X-ray scanner is supporting the laundry personnel in detecting foreign objects in the soldiers’ clothing.
“Ammunition, such as cartridge cases for rifles and pistons, the famous Swiss Army knife, padlocks and occasionally a lighter that was forgotten in a sleeping bag – all of these foreign objects do not belong in the washing process. An Odin X-ray scanner from Inwatec makes sure of that. This foreign object detection system is part of the “security brigade” here and uses artificial intelligence. Odin has to work very precisely, because it just takes one single forgotten cartridge and the entire ventilation system could blow, resulting in tremendously high costs. In the past, it has happened that a complete overhaul of the flatwork ironer was needed because a padlock was hidden in a duvet cover. Camouflage applicators, which are feared for their stubborn spots, are also sorted out here.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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:
Manually inspecting the pockets of work clothes is a costly and time-consuming process at many laundries. This was also the case at Victor Vask, which services the Danish island of Bornholm. Therefore director and owner Kenn Ivan Kjellberg did not hesitate when he found an alternative.
“We had a heavy process of the soiled side sorting, and we wanted to avoid putting our hands in all the pockets of the laundry. It takes an incredibly long time to check your pockets, and at the same time, we need to avoid employees getting hurt by needles, scissors, or other sharp things that hide in the pockets. We have been close, but we can avoid that with the new setup. Today we scan the garments before we sort them,” says Kenn Ivan Kjellberg about the X-ray scanner that Victor Vask bought from Inwatec in Odense.
Costly errors can be avoided
Victor Vask’s customers include, among others, Bornholm’s regional hospital, home care, dairies, the fishing industry, defense, and civil defense. This means that the pockets on the workwear can hide dangerous objects, but also otherwise harmless items that can damage the clothes in the washing process.
“We are terrified of pens and permanent markers in our pockets. It can quickly cost DKK 10,000 (1,339 €) in replacement value to replace the damaged garments, and on top of that, we have administrative costs and expenses for re-washing. Overall, I would estimate that an overlooked ballpoint pen could easily cost us DKK 11,000 (1,475 €),” estimates Kenn Ivan Kjellberg.
The laundry owner cites three parameters as the decisive factors for Victor Vask acquiring an X-ray machine:
“Our investment is primarily done for economic and working environmental 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,” he emphasizes.
Technology paves the way for developments
Victor Vask’s X-ray machine is fed manually, and the garments are manually sorted once they have passed through the scanner. Kenn Ivan Kjellberg says that the current laundry production does not make an investment in automatic sorting profitable for the present, but that it is a possible upgrade in the future.
The director states that he and his colleagues always keep an eye on the development potential of the market. That was the reason why he approached Inwatec director Mads Andresen in the first place.
“At Victor Vask, we like to invest in new technology that improves production and working conditions. When I read about Inwatec’s solution, I contacted Mads to find out if we could benefit from it. It was in the fall of 2018. Shortly after that, we received a visit from Inwatec, and I visited Odense with two employees who tried to operate the machine in real life. They were also very positive, and that made it easy for us to decide,” says Kenn Ivan Kjellberg.
Dive deeper into the topic of the detection of foreign elements in laundry articles and the difficulties regarding this task with Inwatec’s first white paper.
The paper helps in understanding the complex issue by pointing out challenges based on research findings within technology and current market development. In the end, it presents an innovative solution, developed by Inwatec, which removes the pain points within soiled side handling and guarantees a highly efficient and accurate workflow.
A new plant with an increased focus on effective automation solutions and staff safety was put to the test to the utmost when a fire put a sister company out of service. From one day to another, the number of uniforms for washing increased by 60%.
In 2017, Koncernservice Vask in Nykøbing F., Denmark, a laundry servicing three regional hospitals in Sjælland, decided to focus on automated handling of garments where it is possible. The solution was implemented following a public tender, including a combination of Inwatecs Robot Separator, X-ray scanner, and an UHF-RWS sorting system.
The installation was finally implemented in spring 2018, and according to Thomas Petersen, Production Manager, no one has regretted the choices that released labor for other tasks in the laundry, while at the same time doing the work with the soiled site laundry more efficiently and less risky for the employees.
“The working environment has become more comfortable because we have a simpler workstation where the dirty clothes enter the system. One person can actually manage all the handling, but sometimes we have two on the job because some of the jerseys have to be reversed, “says Thomas Petersen.
Involuntary test of capacity
The plant is designed for a capacity of around 1400 uniforms per hour, and with 10 hours of daily operation, it met the requirements for production. However, the requirements were soon to change significantly.
Shortly after the installation, the plant at Nykøbing F. Hospital came for an involuntary test when a hospital laundry in Holbæk burned down and went out of service. This meant that the laundry from Holbæk laundry had to be handled and washed in Nykøbing F.
Instead of the usual three hospitals, the list of clients grew to 6 hospitals, and from one day to another 60%, more uniforms had to be handled. The challenge was solved by extending the opening hours of the plant.
“Usually we work from 6:00 to 16:00, but after the fire, we’re working from 6 am to 11 pm, and with that setup, the production of uniforms for all six hospitals can be handled thanks to the Inwatec solution,” says Thomas Petersen.
Automation and X-ray provide speed and security
In addition to proving that the system could also handle unforeseen problems, Thomas Petersen is above all pleased that the original designs are resolved as expected. Not at least, his employees no longer have to have their hands in all the pockets.
“The X-ray solution finds almost everything, and we do not have to fear any cut injuries, so we have hardly any challenges in that area. Previously, we had four people who checked and emptied the pockets on the dirty laundry, but now we can do with one and a half, where one also helps to turn the shirts. That station is right next to it, so it’s easy to switch between tasks, “says Thomas Petersen.
“The robot separates about 1,400 units per hour, after which they are passed through the chip reader and X-ray before they are automatically sorted into eight categories. One bin is reserved for uniforms with items in the pockets. They are rejected in the first bin, after which they can be reviewed further before they are returned to the system with empty pockets,” says the production manager who display a whole bucket of pens, scissors, name tags and a lot of other unwanted items as proof of the daily catch.
In addition to sorting the laundry so that it is ready for washing, the handling also ensures a higher quality in production, as the number of errors is the sorting is kept to a minimum.
“We have allocated a bin to the readings where the chip is not recognised or where two chips from different washing categories have been registered together, so we do not mix the laundry. Therefore, in our plant, we have six divisions for uniforms. We sort all white pants together, all dark clothes collectively and so on, but it is not something we are bound to if we need to change our production,” says Thomas Petersen.
At the family-owned Swedish laundry KåPI Tvätt in Bengtsfors, management has been actively investing in the fight against lost inventory. The chosen solution is to chip mark all current garments, and as part of that process, KåPI Tvätt has just invested in an Inwatec setup, which includes an X-ray scanner, a UHF Chip reader, and a sorting line.
“We continue to lose 20-30 percent of our inventory every year, and considering that we spend between 7 and 10 million Swedish kroner (680,000-970,000 €) to on the purchase of new fabrics, it goes without saying that it is a fairly large amount, we can save when we get the systems up and running. We expect the ROI to happen in a few years,” says director Kent Pettersson.
The system will initially be set up in such a way that all pieces without an existing chip are rejected and only returned to the circulation when they are equipped with chips and registered in the system. This way it is expected that the process can be completed in a relatively short time span, and from the first day there will be significantly better control of all inventory in use.
Fewer employees in production – better quality
At KåPI Tvätt, there are currently between six and ten people working to sort the dirty laundry, which includes towels, sheets, tablecloths and working uniforms from hotels, restaurants and conference centers.
Part of the explanation for the many employees is that KåPI Tvätt manages many smaller pieces of garments and that handling requires many hands. The expectation is that this part of the workforce in the laundry will be minimized significantly.
“We will only need 3-4 people with the new equipment. Fundamentally, it is expensive to have so many employees in production, and we are very aware of the efficiency as much as possible. For a while, we have been convinced that more automation and more robots are the way forward, and this is a logical next step for us,” says Production Manager Morgan Olsson, who, together with Kent Pettersson, went to Inwatec’s headquarters in Odense to have a closer look at the selected machines.
New technology is popular among the employees
Some of the tasks in the sorting disappear with the new investment, but according to Morgan Olsson, the employees look forward to the changes:
“They get a simpler working day, and they eliminate some of the dirty features. It’s not popular to be the one to check and empty the pockets. Especially in workwear, there are lots of screws, pens and similar items which have to be sorted out. It takes too much time, but that task will be improved with the new X-ray system,” he says, while Kent Pettersson agrees:
“We see ourselves as an innovative company, and we are leaders in the private sector in Sweden. It also means that we are following the progress, and our employees expect that,” says the director.
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.
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.
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.
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.