A grip on limp textiles soon?
In some industry sectors, automated and robotic systems have been standard for a long time. They are expected to make manufacturing more efficient, flexible and economic. Up till now, though, they have hardly caught on in the textile and clothing industry. What is the reason for this?
According to the International Federation of Robotics – the world association for robotics – more than 1.7 million new industrial robots are expected to start work in factories for the first time by 2020. This means that the number of these devices, set to exceed three million by then, has doubled within seven years. In the automotive, packaging and food industry – these tireless assistants, which are linked to automation systems, are lending a hand everywhere. Trade journals talk about a veritable ‘automation boom’. In the textile and clothing industry, though, this is just an ‘automation mini-boom’. Apart from a few exceptions, robots have not yet been connected to factory power sockets here in significant numbers. This is strange because the textile supply chain has also been examined under the big Industry 4.0 magnifying glass for some time now, in order to see where and how processes can be made more flexible, digitised and automated.
Christian Löchte, Managing Director of Formhand Automation GmbH in Braunschweig, knows the reason: “Unlike component parts made of metal or plastic, textiles are limp and porous, so conventional robots have difficulties in gripping them”, he says. “Car doors or tetrapaks would be easier to grip”, adds Löchte, who has been developing highly flexible grippers since 2011. His latest idea: to adapt the Formhand technology he developed with colleagues, which has mainly been found in automotive factories and metal pressing plants up till now, to textiles, so that workmate Robbi (the robot) can also grip limp fabrics in future and move them automatically from A to B.
Vacuum + granular material = an automatic way to grip textiles firmly
With this claim, the spin-off from the TU (Technische Universität) Braunschweig strikes a chord in the industry: thanks to digitisation, approaches towards individualised clothing manufacture –catchphrase ‘fashion on demand’ – are all the rage at the moment. However, in order to be able to manufacture smaller quantities or even single products cost-effectively, manufacturing processes need to be made more flexible first. This is already happening in part, but “one thing here has been completely overlooked up till now: making the hardware flexible”, says Löchte. The question that concerns him is: how do you automatically move an individually cut trouser leg onto the sewing machine, where it can be sewn together with the other one?
It may sound simple, but in practise it is extremely complicated. To move the trouser leg, the Formhand developers use a gripper with a form-flexible cushion on the end, filled with granular material. A flow of air ensures that even the limpest of fabrics sticks to the cushion. “The airstream generates a gentle gripping force which holds the textile”, Löchte explains. In future, the gripper will be able to fold items of clothing, collect offcuts on the cutting table and insert fabrics into processing machines.
Löchte and his team will be presenting their innovation for the first time at the upcoming Texprocess (14 to 17 May, Frankfurt/Main). They’ll be in good company there because automated and customised processing of (technical) textiles is a main focus of the leading international fair for the clothing and textile processing industry.
Cover image: Formhand Automation