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Textiles Meets The Jetsons

Modern-day automation gives textiles a science-fiction feel, eliminating human error, waste and inventory.

  Modern-day automation gives textiles a science-fiction feel, eliminating human error, waste and inventory. Old pictures of mills always depict an endless number of people carrying and handling material, pushing and pulling carts with merchandise, moving things back and forth. And behind them are even more people, trying to keep track of what should go where. Todays mills look different. Unmanned vehicles move quietly, picking up material at one machine, following invisible tracks and commands to deliver their cargo to other machines or into specific areas in warehouse systems. The scene looks more like the depiction of a giant space station in a science fiction movie than what most people associate with a traditional textile mill. Yet this is today, and this is textiles right here on earth. Of course, it is one thing to say mills can use gadgets that are like those seen in science fiction movies. It is a very different thing to actually decide to use such tools, and to pay for them. Its a competitive world out there, and investments must bring a promise of returns. Many Hands Bring Much Opportunity For AutomationThere is a lot to be done to fibers to make them into yarn and then a fabric, and between all the process steps a lot of moving and carrying and handling is needed. Every time hands touch the material, there is an opportunity to somehow automate this step. The secret is in knowing when the gentle touch of a human hand is better for the product, and when the tender loving care of a machine serves it better. Most machine producers offer varying degrees of automation for their equipment for example, automated doffing, or for linking spinning and winding. But when it comes to transporting cans with sliver, moving finished products such as yarn or fabric, and warehousing, automation typically goes beyond what is associated with textile-specific equipment.

Autefa's bale warehousing equipment handles, sorts, stores and dispatches bales. Moving The BalesStarting with fiber, storing and transporting vast numbers of bales is an important task in any yarn mill. Most mills use plenty of semi-automated equipment (forklifts and computer tracking of bales) to aid in moving and locating the correct lot. However, there is quite a range between using auxiliary equipment to aid in performing the necessary tasks and using fully automated bale transport and storage. Autefa Automation, Germany (Fi-Tech Inc., Richmond, Va.), is well-known in the textile industry. The company manufactures automated handling equipment for staple and filament yarn companies. For staple fiber spinning mills, Autefa offers a full line of bale-handling equipment, starting with the baling press (Lift-Box or Uni-Box), to automatic wrapping and strapping (Intra-Wrap), to fully automated bale warehousing. A high degree of automation is less an issue of saving labor costs and more an issue of consistent quality. Because transport and storage require no labor involvement, there is no chance for human error. Uniform packages also allow optimum stacking for transport and storage. Considering bale transport only, Keith Mfg. Co., Madras, Ore., offers the Walking Floor System as an alternative to rolling floors, allowing for cleaner and safer transport of bales over a smooth floor into opening and cleaning equipment. For textile applications, the Walking Floor is presently used mostly in the ginning industry. Other Transport SystemsTrastecnica S.p.A., Italy (Symtech Inc., Spartanburg), links the draw frame to the spinning machine. Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), just like those in science fiction movies, move over invisible guide tracks. AGVs also may use an internal gyroscope system to guide them to draw frames that have full cans. They then pick up the cans and move them either to temporary buffer storage or to a space at the spinning machine where the cans are empty. 
Trastecnica's Rotor Link sliver can transport system links the draw frame to the spinning machine.The AGV system is used in open-end and air-jet spinning mills. All commands are coordinated in a computer system: the spinning machines signal need for more sliver; the draw frames signal that four cans are full; and the computer coordinates the AGVs to ensure the right sliver goes to the correct spinning machine. On top of that, each AGV remembers to recharge its batteries whenever there is some time along the way. When it comes to transporting cops and cones, many machine producers integrate these systems into their machines. Italy-based U.T.I.T. Wagner Automation (M and M Machinery Sales LLC, Gastonia, N.C.) offers these systems, as well as bale handling and overhead can transport. See Tessival Group, this issue, for a detailed description of a fully automated plant using equipment from U.T.I.T.On the filament side, Autefa provides automatic doffing that includes temporary storage and links to texturing or packaging. Transportation can be performed overhead via a railway system or on the ground via AGVs. Storage for the bobbins is fully automated, eliminating the chance of human error. The complete package includes automatic packaging and labeling, which fully integrate the shipping activities into other business information functions. San Grato CMT S.r.l., Italy (Symtech Inc.), produces fully automated systems for doffing, transport, storage, and packing for all kinds of yarn. At this time, the company claims to have the largest market share for advanced automation in the filament sector.
San Grato's Robofix 3 robotized palletizer Automation PayoffsSo, when does it make sense to use this degree of automation Fully automated handling systems require quite an investment in terms of money and dedication. They are capable of handling enormous quantities of material and tracking it at the same time. Typically, companies do not commit to these investments based solely on labor savings the payoff period based on labor savings alone is not sufficient when compared to production equipment. However, full automation typically is part of an integration into an inventory management system and helps reduce throughput times and inventory levels. And the systems always reduce the chances for human error, avoiding quality problems. By avoiding the risk of mixing up different materials which easily results in producing waste and by avoiding misplacement of products, it is possible not only to reduce costs, but also to enhance the companys reliability with its customers. This is where automated material handling becomes a necessity. When considering labor cost savings, it is also important to look at full labor cost, including training and recruiting. One of the results of automation is that a number of high-turnover positions often are replaced by a more permanent position with a focus on programming and maintaining the equipment. Significant savings can be realized by avoiding high turnover, as costs for recruitment, training, and loss of production and quality are avoided. The growing need for automated handling has been recognized by companies not traditionally represented in the textile industry. SK Daifuku Corp., Salt Lake City (Batson Group Inc., Greenville), designs complete material-handling systems, including storage buffers. Its systems use AGVs (tape, wire and laser guidance). The company previously has custom-designed such systems for the computer assembly industry, as well as for food processing companies. Formerly known as ESKAY Corp., SK Daifuku is now a division of Japan-based Daifuku, whose systems are known in the automotive assembly industries, where just-in-time principles have been integrated into transport and warehousing systems for some time now. Handling The FabricWhen it comes to automated transport in fabric production, types of equipment range from manual auxiliary lifters to fully automated transport and storage systems. Hubtex of North America Inc., Spartanburg, produces a wide range of transport and storage equipment. Primary installations in the textile industry include wire-guided vehicles that transport warp and fabric. Custom-made systems provide transport among warp storage, weaving machines, and fabric storage, as well as carousel storage systems for warp beams. Recent installations include BGF Industries Inc. in South Hill, Va., and MillikenandCompany in Cedar Hill, S.C.Krantz produces automatic winder and wrapping or packaging equipment. While this may not represent automatic material handling in the more narrow sense, tensionless cutting and mandrelless winding are important aspects within the handling of fabric. Additionally, Krantz is of course known for its wrapping and clamping systems. Fabric contamination is a problem easily avoided by wrapping the fabric, whether it is to be shipped or used later within the companys own facilities. Automated packaging equipment not only reduces highly repetitive operations, but it also avoids contamination during the packaging operation, as well as when interchanging products. Most completely integrated systems require large operations to pay for themselves. Such systems can handle large volumes of material and product, and smaller mills may not be able to fully realize the benefits because the systems are laid out for more volume. Additionally, the chance of human error is greatly reduced if fewer units are handled, especially if the number of different styles is limited. Therefore, the size of the operation is relevant from a cost-savings perspective, as well as from a quality assurance point of view. In smaller operations, fully automated systems may not be appropriate.  Semi-Automated TransportGenkinger, Germany (Sourcing Services International, Greer, S.C.), manufactures a wide range of semi-automated transport tools for the weaving industry. A primary focus is in the area of handling equipment for warp beams as well as fabric beams. 
Genkinger's Electro warp beam lifting truckfeatures a harness mounting device.Genkingers lifting trucks can be motorized or manual, but they are not fully automated or traveling around the plant guided by some underground wire. Semi-automation is all that is needed at this part of the operation. Warp beams run for quite some time without the need for replacement at the weaving machine.  And as the need for a new warp arises, operators need to be involved anyhow, because warp beam transfer has not yet been completely automated. This is a perfect example of a situation where complete automation would not make economic sense, even if it were technically possible: it makes sense only to automate an operation that is highly repetitive, such as doffing in spinning. While each spindle runs many hours before doffing is required, the high number of spindles makes it a highly repetitive task. This is not true for replacing warp beams, nor is it true for fabric doffing in many weaving operations that are not using high-production looms. These are areas where semi-automated equipment helps operators perform their jobs faster and better. A Continuing TrendThere is no doubt that the trend towards more automation will continue. As the textile industrys investment requirements for production equipment increase, payoff periods are becoming longer, and automated handling equipment becomes an equal consideration. Typical fully automated systems pay for themselves within about three to four years, according to Rodger Hartwig, vice president, Symtech Inc.For very large plants, integrated material handling is already a necessity. At high-production volume, even small cost savings can reach a break-even point. The most critical aspects, however, are probably quality, reliability and the ability to quickly deliver the right material or product to the right place. By eliminating human error, automated handling systems reduce waste and inventory, and most importantly enhance the companys credibility with its customers. And there is no science fiction about the importance of that. Editor's Note: Helmut H.A. Hergeth, Ph.D., is an associate professor in textile and apparel technology and management at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles, Raleigh, N.C.

November 2002