Wireless Network Streamlines Embroidery, Monogramming
Applying logos and other designs on shirts, jackets, caps, and accessories has become an enormous industry, with sports teams, theme parks, and corporations doing their best to advance their brands through apparel. There's also movement toward mass customization, which fosters a demanding high-quality, small-order production environment.
Applying logos and other designs on shirts, jackets, caps, and accessories has become an enormous industry, with sports teams, theme parks, and corporations doing their best to advance their brands through apparel. There's also movement toward mass customization, which fosters a demanding high-quality, small-order production environment. In many cases, these custom-decorated pieces are produced in factory settings using as many as 100 commercial embroidery and monogramming machines.
These machines are versatile, capable of being reconfigured for a different pattern application as each order is filled. Number of machines needed to complete each project on time varies according to complexity and volume, and manufacturers seek ways to optimize workflow while meeting demands with quality product—a challenge that invites innovative automation.
VeriStitch Inc. was among the earliest companies to create technologies designed to modernize this industry. Today, it is said to be among its most successful suppliers, and VeriStitch's flagship system, Delta Industrial Sewing Network, operates on the production floors of some of the industry's most notable giants, including Ashworth, Cutter & Buck, Disney Direct Marketing, Lands' End, and L.L. Bean.
Seeds of automation
Automation was introduced to the decorative sewing industry via media interfaces borrowed from the computing industry. By the early 1980s, it was common for commercial embroidery machines to feature paper tape readers, followed a few years later by floppy disk drives. An embroidery shop would maintain a physical inventory of pattern media; when it was time to load a particular pattern onto a machine, the operator would retrieve the appropriate medium and load it into the machine to set up production.
Wireless machine network from VeriStitch, the Delta Industrial Sewing Network, brought 10Base-T TCP/IP to commercial embroidery in a distributed networking architecture.
This "sneaker-net" system did nothing to increase production-floor efficiency, however. Production tracking and usage planning was left to machine operators, and overall efficiency of the operation depended on manual loading of new patterns once a machine finished a programmed task.
By the late 1980s, most commercial embroidery and monogramming machines included serial ports to download patterns, opening the door to more efficient pattern loading and networking.
Leveraging the serial port
Jerry Kahn, who would incorporate VeriStitch in 1993 and continues to serve as the company's president and chief engineer, developed one of the first systems to take advantage of serial ports with the ELI 2000 system. ELI 2000 turned a common PC into an embroidery disk reader, design previewer, editor, and design library that could download designs automatically to an embroidery machine. The system proved immediately popular.
Kahn continued to improve on his pattern delivery system, and in the early 1990s introduced a networking product called Design-Net. It functioned much like the ELI 2000, except that it networked the machines with a cabled system, enabling one PC to download designs to multiple embroidery machines of any manufacture. "The core design principle of this system proved so rock-solid," says Kahn, "that it formed the basis for the original version of the Delta Industrial Sewing Network."
Serial to wireless Ethernet
Success of the Design-Net system and the many installations overseen by the company made Kahn and VeriStitch acutely aware of the expense and issues that can accompany data cabling in factory environments. To help simplify network setup and reconfiguration, the company decided in the mid-1990s to pursue wireless networking. As Ethernet was beginning to make significant gains on the factory floor, Kahn examined the new breed of wireless serial-to-Ethernet modems that had recently entered the market. He was aware of the benefits of replacing wires with wireless connections, including productivity advantages with real-time data collection. In initiating a development project, VeriStitch was on its way to become the first company in its industry to implement and leverage wireless Internet protocol (IP) network technology.
"I knew wireless was the best approach for embroidery machine networking from my experience with cabled networks," says Kahn. "I was also intrigued by the possibilities for really pushing network capabilities. If we could integrate sewing machines with the corporate information system, I knew we'd be on the way to significant gains in automation."
VeriStitch began by investigating 802.11 serial-to-Ethernet technologies and found limits in its transmission range due to multipath fading, which results from high ceilings and machinery movements—such as material handling conveyor systems and forklifts.
While investigating alternative technologies, Kahn came across Cirronet wireless data equipment, designed specifically to operate in difficult industrial and factory settings. The company's frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) technology was tested and worked without multipath fading in target environments, providing transmission ranges that could accommodate the largest facilities. This technology was the basis of the wireless system design.
Industrial sewing network
The wireless machine network pioneered by VeriStitch—the Delta Industrial Sewing Network (Delta ISN)—brought 10Base-T TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol) to commercial embroidery and monogramming, in a distributed networking architecture. A typical installation features a dedicated TCP/IP server that communicates with a corporate LAN over an Ethernet physical medium, and communicates with terminals attached to embroidery/monogramming machines over wireless links.
The system provides centralized pattern distribution from a digitized pattern library in a Delta database—with drag-and-drop pattern entry into any terminal on the network. It also is said to provide comprehensive production data tracked by machine, operator, and pattern or job. The result is significantly increased productivity without increasing machine or personnel count.
With Delta ISN, the serial port of each commercial sewing machine connects to a VeriStitch Delta Terminal. This simple, rugged terminal is paired with a Cirronet 2.4 GHz HopNet wireless serial modem, which communicates over the air with a Cirronet wireless Snap access point linked to the network server.
The wireless link also transports data from the terminals to the server, including operating status (online/offline, current job, completed cycles and pieces, etc.), and events, such as thread breaks.
Though the embroidery and monogramming machines are serial end devices, TCP/IP handles connections between the network server and terminals. A typical installation includes 30 to 100 networked embroidery machines. These serial machines are assigned individual IP addresses in Cirronet's wireless Snap access point, which directs Ethernet data to the non-Ethernet legacy devices.
The wireless system handles communications between the application server and the devices, removes Ethernet formatting, and sends application data to the serial machine. The serial devices and wireless device also can share the same IP address, with communications handled via port assignment. Wireless units are mounted overhead in the facility and use vertically polarized rubber whip antennas.
VeriStitch uses the synchronization function of the wireless device to allow multiple units to co-locate without interfering with each other; each access point handles communications between a group of 16 machines and the wired Ethernet connection to the dedicated server. The access point receives non-Ethernet data from serial wireless devices and encapsulates them in an Ethernet datagram, making the non-Ethernet terminal units appear as nodes on the Ethernet network.
Managing the installation
VeriStitch provides customers with a pre-installation checklist to complete prior to equipment delivery to help identify infrastructure issues—cabling, power, and machine and access point locations. Cirronet designed a set of radio-frequency monitoring software tools for pre-installation site surveys to help with radio/antenna placement during initial setup and when adding or rearranging machines.
"After installation, Delta ISN customers generally see productivity improvements in the 10% to 20% range, and 90% or more reduction of shrinkage and rejects due to errors at the machine," says Kahn.
The wireless system also provides superior immunity from power surges, physical breakage, and vibration, and improves safety factors.
Finally, maintenance personnel can monitor network health without going to the production floor, allowing VeriStitch to remotely monitor the system for maintenance, reducing the expense of sending engineers on-site.
VeriStitch says customers typically see payback of less than a year for the VeriStitch/Cirronet wireless system.
Tim Cutler is vice president of marketing, Cirronet Inc.