Textile automation adds to thread-thin profits

Pennies on the dollar is the price for textile automation retrofits, compared to new machinery, according to Patti Engineering’s work at Inman Mills manufacturing.


Textile industry machinery with useful life remaining can benefit from modernization of outdated, custom-designed automation technologies. Retrofit control systems and software can be applied, according to system integrator Patti Engineering Inc., a control systems integration company based in Auburn Hills, Mich., with offices in Massachusetts and Texas. Recent completion of an automation project at an Inman Mills plant in South Carolina improved thread-thin margins, quality, and cost competitiveness.

“Retrofits cost just pennies on the dollar compared to replacing inefficient equipment,” explained Sam Hoff, president of Patti Engineering, “allowing manufacturers to double the life of their equipment, adding an additional 15 to 20 years of run time with high reliability and a significant boost to productivity and accuracy.”

Inman Mills is a leading technical textile manufacturer, specializing in high-quality greige (unfinished fabrics and yarns) for home furnishings, apparel, and technical uses. Inman hired Patti Engineering to design and install a state-of-the-art electrical control system on a 15-year-old Autoflow system located in its Saybrook plant.

Ring spinning machine: Each machine contains eight lanes for trolleys. Trolleys are kept in a specific order to automatically determine which trolley is next to be filled. There are six connected trolleys. There is always one empty lane and one full lane.Textile automation

Through the years textile manufacturing has evolved from ring spinning dating back to 1830, to rotor spun (1967), to air jet (1981), and to vortex (1996). Each is a different type of process for producing a yarn, each with distinct advantages and disadvantages. While air jet and vortex are the latest technologies and capable of manufacturing yarn at higher production rates, ring spinning does make a stronger yarn.

Roving Frame (Flyer): Fibers in a strand form which have no twist (called sliver) are drafted smaller to prepare them for the spinning process. A slight twist at this process gives the fibers some strength (now called roving). The roving is wrapped on larTo expand its product offering, Inman needed to invest in a ring spinning system and purchased pre-owned Autoflow equipment from a longtime supplier. The system consisted of conveyors and trolleys to connect and automate the process of moving material from the roving process to the spinning frame. At the roving frame (flyers) bobbins weighing 10 lb each are automatically removed and replaced by empty ones. The full bobbins are transported to either a storage area or directly to the spinning frame. After these bobbins are emptied at spinning, they move to the bobbin strippers to ensure they are clean, and these empties are moved to a storage area until they are needed to again replace full bobbing at the roving frames.

Storage buffer area: This buffer area provides a place to store full and clean trolleys. Full trolleys then are ready to go to the ring spinning frames, and clean trolleys are ready to go to the roving frames. This common area (where all trolley tracks coPrior to arrival at the Inman plant, the equipment was located at a closed Honduras plant and disassembled with few charts, drawings, or manuals. Inman reassembled the equipment, but the PC-based controls system that came with the machinery was inoperable. Inman was left with a nonfunctional automation system; materials were moved manually until a solution could be found.

Inman contacted its supplier, and the supplier recommended Patti Engineering, which used the latest PC hardware, PC-based control software, and human-machine interface ((graphical user interface, GUI) software to build a fully integrated electrical control system.

Patti Engineering’s custom solution for Inman revived the automation and added features unavailable with the original control. The new software programs were also written for better support and debugging. Configurations and logging databases were added to give a better history of events to improve the debug process. Improved functionality and management capabilities from the GUI were added to run the system more efficiently.

Ring spinning frame shows roving bobbins in the creel. Courtesy: Patti EngineeringWiring, PLC battery

Other issues arose during the implementation, including another resource hired to re-install related wiring.

After the wiring proved to be a significant source of trouble for the machine’s operation, Patti Engineering also fixed the wiring, which was out of the scope of its original project.

Inside the far left door is the bobbin exchange: The newly loaded clean bobbins are seen in the roving frame. Courtesy: Patti EngineeringAn inoperable bobbin stripper was another unexpected issue. Engineers determined that parts needed replacing, including a battery in the PLC that died after longtime storage, causing programming and data loss. Patti Engineering restored the bobbin stripper with programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

Bobbin stripper (cleaner): This machine takes unclean bobbins from the ring spinning frames and removes any remaining fiber layers. If there are missing or rejected bobbins, it also replaces them. The Autoflow interfaces to these machines coordinate theUntil defective bobbin stripper parts were replaced, Inman’s operators were required to manually remove unclean bobbins and replace them with clean ones. With 168 bobbins per line and six lines (1,008 total bobbins) running per ring spinning frame, this was a labor-intensive process. After full restoration, just three operators are needed to monitor the system, which is now running 24 hours/day, 5 or 6 days/week.

Closeup of the ring spinning process: Roving is drafted and twisted to the appropriate yarn size. Courtesy: Patti EngineeringTraining, support

Also included in the project was training for Inman’s management, engineering staff, technicians, and operators. Inman uses new air jet and vortex processes in the rest of this plant. This was the staff’s first experience with automated ring-spinning equipment using PC-based control and fieldbus industrial network systems, so there was a definite learning curve.

Inman Mills plant manager Bill Hightower said the integrator was knowledgeable and “provided exceptional communication at all times during the installation, training, and implementation of the system.” System integrator representatives also were quick to respond to questions, providing excellent project results, Hightower added.

With the Autoflow system fully operational, the system integrator continues with U.S.-based customer service and online engineering support services, 24/7, responding quickly to identify problems and minimize downtime. In response to the support calls, complicated code was removed from the system to make it easier for Inman’s operators to operate and troubleshoot.

Today’s manufacturers struggle with aging infrastructure, increasingly stringent regulations, as well as escalating operations and energy costs. In the current economic climate, manufacturers in all industries are searching for cost-effective ways to upgrade equipment to meet current and future requirements. Sustainable solutions and upgrades of existing equipment help manufacturers reduce costs, improve operations, comply with new regulations, and save energy.

- Georgia H. Whalen is director of marketing for Patti Engineering Inc. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager CFE Media, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering.



Project details: Textile automation at Inman Mills

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