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Real steel robots and RPA change the game in sock manufacturing

Who would have thought that a sock factory in Romania will become an example for the usage of robots and process automation in the textile production sector?

A young entrepreneur passioned about technology had the dream of building his own factory, where he would include the latest trends and possibilities into a fully automatic production process per se, but also into a robotic production management system.

sock manufacturing

Thus, he transcripted his dream into a business plan and applied with it to an EU funded program for small and medium businesses. This is how the dream of an automatic factory came to fruition into the real sock factory of today.

The name of the factory is Sock Laboratory, with a resonance that springs from the cleanliness of the operation, but mostly from the highly technological orientation of all activities that make up the entire business.

From the first moment that you step into the factory, the setting looks like a scene from a futuristic movie, or at least from an advanced microchip factory, not at all from a textile manufacturing unit.

Real robots knit, link, iron and stack the socks

The sock production process starts with a computer program that is fed into a circular knitting robot. With no human intervention the robot knits, it draws complex patterns, it creates complex terry and elastic designs, all with unimaginable speed. Perhaps there is nothing special up until this point, as the sock production process has been like this since some years ago.

However, once the knitting robot is done knitting the sock, there is where the magic happens. A robotic arm comes from the side of the machine and it arrives on top of the sock. The robotic arm is equipped with 168 fine hooks.

The hooks are displayed perfectly onto a metallic ring. Now, each of the 168 hooks approaches each of the 168 needles that knitted the sock and sticks to them perfectly. The thickness of one needle or one hook is less than half a millimeter and each hook sticks perfectly onto each needle.

And this is done with ultimate precision every time, without stopping, 24 hours, 7 days a week. After this point, the hooks catch the final stitches of the sock and the robotic arm pulls it out and takes it to the linking machine. This is where another incredible precise automation process happens.

Now, every final stitch of the sock is transferred from each hook to another fine needle. After this step, the ring of needles bends from its middle so that one half of the ring is perfectly connected to the other half of the ring.

Now, each needle is with its tip in the interior of another corresponding needle. For the final stage, a robotic sewing machine approaches this setting. With absolutely perfect precision, the needle of the sewing machine gets the yarn through the first two stitches which sit on two intersecting needles.

Then, it moves with a small perfect quantum in order to be positioned exactly parallel to the next two stitches which sit on the next two intersecting needles. This amazing process continues until the end. Then, the sock is turned from inside out to its correct position and it gets out of the robot and ready to go.

Therefore, the entire manufacturing process of a sock from yarn to the final, unpackaged product is done entirely by robotic processes.

In the next stage of ironing and stacking the socks, another fully automatic machine equipped with robotic arms and processes does the job. All socks are placed onto iron forms that automatically pass through a number of stages of humidification, steaming, pressing and drying.

optimizing RPA in sock manufacturing

In the end, a perfectly synchronized robotic arm pulls each sock out of each form, while another robotic arm places them one on top of the other. When the stack is done, the conveyor takes them out to the packaging stage.

RPA (Robotic Process Automation) accomplished for free with Google Sheets

The management of Sock Laboratory falls no short of the robotic automation which is applied to the factory per se.

As the management team is comprised only of young men passioned about computer programming, technology, science and everything that is new, they have managed to produce entirely by their own an automatic management system for the business.

After a very deep analysis of what the market has to offer in terms of ERP or MRP software for the management activities that conduct the business, the team at Sock Laboratory did not find anything to cater for all their needs.

No software available was perfectly adapted or at least adaptable to the specifics of the business. Moreover, the option of using a very expensive ERP solution with a team of programmers that would adapt it to the specifics of the sock factory was not an option due to understandable financial considerations.

Finally, the team decided to go onto the adventurous path of designing its own management system based on free online spreadsheet applications and complex custom scripts.

Obviously, perhaps every management team that doesn’t wish to spend money takes advantage of the possibilities offered by Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. However, the team at Sock Laboratory went many steps far away from a simple spreadsheet notation of their activity.

Now, after several months of writing scripts in Google Sheets, the organic application that never stops evolving can take care of many processes that perhaps all textile factories in the world do manually or by using some slow software procedures, with support teams and the like.

Going into the depth of the highly evolved custom spreadsheet application, all begins with the sheet that holds every article that is produced inside the factory.

Each article is basically a row in the table, and all its characteristics are the columns. The characteristics include the SKU, the name, the color, the size, the barcode, the instructions for packaging, the recipe and others.

One nice feature is that every article is connected through API calls to the accounting software which holds the stock of every article. Therefore, every article in the sheet of articles shows its stock, but also the stock which is into production.

In terms of management, the one operation that seems impossible to automate right now is the creation of new products. But with the continuous rise of artificial intelligence, and with an input of merchant data gathered through online shopping, new products can perhaps be created better by artificial brains connected to vast databases, than humans.

Ilie PANA, CEO, Sock Laboratory

The first automation of this custom robotic management system is that when the stock of a certain article falls below a limit, a production order is generated. This means that into another sheet of the spreadsheet, which holds the production orders, a new row appears holding all the details of the respective order.

Here, every order has all the necessary characteristics of the article that will be produced, but also the status of the order, its number, due date, and performance indicators that will help spot problems and make production more efficient.

Once per week, a cron job gathers the necessary materials for all the new production orders, creates a material order, checks whether the materials are on the factory stock, and for all that are not, it automatically generates an order and it also sends it to the suppliers.

When the materials arrive, the status of corresponding production orders changes to “materials available”, and they become active for manufacturing. Immediately, a document containing all the necessary information regarding the order gets printed.

From that piece of paper, the entire production flow of an article is generated and there is no need for further interruptions, analyses or conversation until the real article is manufactured and gets into the warehouse.

Therefore, the free custom robotic process automation software created using custom scripts in Google Sheets manages to be the brain of the factory and conduct its activities.

The software knows what products were sold or not, and which one’s are the most asked for in every season. Consequently, the application creates production orders for the articles that are needed, calculates the necessary materials, it sends the orders to the suppliers and once they arrive it orders production.

It even arranges the priority of orders, so that the most urgent are treated first. Therefore, the software does the job of at least three management employees, automatically. And, perhaps, it does it better than any human would do it.

Current limitations

When asked about his factory and the way it is managed, Ilie Pana, CEO of Sock Laboratory replies:

“We are more than proud to create this jewel of a factory right here in Romania. We feel that we are at the forefront of industry 4.0., at least in the textile sector. It is really funny that we managed to do with free apps like Google Sheets what others cannot even do with software that costs upward of $50.000.”

Ilie Pana said more, “There are limitations to automation, of course. In terms of production, the yarn is placed on the knitting robots by a human operator. At this moment, it seems almost impossible that this would ever be done by robots due to the overwhelming fineness of the operation of tracing the yarn through multiple pathways into the knitting cylinder. The transfer of products from the knitting stage to ironing, and from ironing to packaging is also done manually.”

“However, this seems very possible to automate in the near future and we will do our job to fulfill this challenge,” Pana added.

“In terms of management, the one operation that seems impossible to automate right now is the creation of new products. But with the continuous rise of artificial intelligence, and with an input of merchant data gathered through online shopping, new products can perhaps be created better by artificial brains connected to vast databases, than humans,” he concluded.

To find out more or even contact the team at Sock Laboratory to discuss the sock business or how they manage to create such amazing management scripts in the free Google Cloud apps, you can go on https://socklaboratory.com

If anyone has any feedback or input regarding the published news, please contact: info@textiletoday.com.bd

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