700,000 towels and sheets a week — that’s the 300-tonne challenge that Queensland’s Consolidated Linen Services (CLS) works through to keep the State’s hospitality industry, aged care providers, hospitals and other customers running.
But that enormous laundry list brings challenges.
The company’s team of 200 can often be working in hot, humid and challenging conditions – up to 50 degrees Celsius. With the skills shortage that arose during the pandemic, and the demand for clean linen continuing to grow, CLS has been looking to find smarter ways to support its team, improve safety, and reduce the most manual and repetitive parts of the job.
It’s the kind of work that only a robot could love, and with help from the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Hub (or ARM Hub), CLS now has what is thought to be a world-first in Artificial Intelligence (AI): a robot that can pick up a freshly washed towel from a hopper, shake it out, flatten it, and feed it into a folding machine.
The National AI Centre: Listening to the AI industry
National AI Centre Director Stela Solar saw these events unfolding at a visit to the ARM Hub – an independent non-for-profit organisation, funded by the Queensland Government in partnership with CSIRO, Queensland University of Technology, and the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre.
Stela’s visit was part of a national listening tour that will take in major centres for AI around the country.
On tour, Stela is meeting the researchers, businesses and partners in Australia’s growing AI ecosystem, to understand more about the current state of adoption, innovation and opportunities with AI.
Stela says people’s thoughts about robots in the workplace can often be conflicted. On the one hand, we welcome the idea of avoiding risky, dull, repetitive and manual processes, but we might equally be nervous about the notion that a robot will take our jobs.
“The prototype laundry robot is a great example of how incorporating automation, robotics and AI into the workplace can be transformative, enhance safety, and keep the same investment in jobs.” Stela said.
“Given the growth of the hospitality and care sector in Queensland, combined with a skills shortage, CLS needed to find a way for the work to be done. Fortunately it is work that a robot can do, ensuring hospitality and care sector needs were met, while reducing the amount of risky and uncomfortable work for people.”
Teaching robots to fold laundry
Teaching the robot how to undertake what is a relatively simple human task is its own story of innovation.
CLS operations manager, Tom Roberts, says the company had not been able to find a commercially available solution anywhere that would solve the problem of plucking, shaking, placing and flattening linen on to the next stage of machinery. Enter AI to empower small business to innovate and solve problems.
“Towels are flexible, and linen moves about, so it has always required a human operator with the dexterity to be able to handle those items,” he said.
“We came to the ARM Hub to be able to try and solve that problem so that we can help the operators increase their efficiency, increase safety throughout the laundry and just improve our business profitability at the same time.”
ARM Hub worked with CLS to develop a sub-speed prototype robotic unfolder to prove that it was possible to automate the process of picking up a towel and flattening it for folding.
To teach a robot how, it was necessary to break the task down into steps, such as identifying a ‘grabbable corner’ of the towel using computer vision and creating a machine learning, or artificial intelligence model that would predict where the edges of the towel were likely to be.
Once the towel is grabbed, two robot arms work in concert to unfold the towel and lay it flat ready for folding.
What's next for the laundry bots?
The next step in the project will be to integrate the unfolding robot with the folding machines used by CLS in their laundries, with additional programming to help the systems communicate.
The technology and innovation that has gone into the process could have wider applications beyond laundry, Tom Roberts says.
“The biggest benefit that we have seen is the flow-on effects that this project will have going into the future,” he said.
“We have started off with towelling items but that can grow into other products that we process every day, such as other textile items, sheets, pillow cases. There’s a lot of applications within the laundry industry itself and probably outside of the laundry industry where this type of technology can be integrated in all sorts of environments.”
The National AI Centre listening tour will continue across the country in June, July, and August, and Stela Solar says it has been fantastic to see the willingness of industry to work in partnership with AI and robotics service providers and researchers to tackle novel problems.
“Australia has a history of amazing innovation and AI represents the current technological frontier which can lift the global competitiveness of our industry ” she said.
“By surfacing the AI services and capability available across Australia, we look forward to simplifying the path to AI adoption and innovation for businesses.”
Read more about the project at ARM Hub.
Do you want to innovate and solve problems with AI in your business or take part in the listening tour?