Start-up from Munich teaches robots how to fold towels

Munich In view of cost pressure, labor shortages and the trend to bring production back home, robots are becoming established in more and more industries. Industrial laundries and the textile industry, which are desperately looking for staff, have so far benefited little from this trend.

Robots still have trouble handling textiles and other deformable materials. A higher level of automation would be helpful here in particular. “Anyone who has ever worked in a large laundry knows how strenuous and sometimes monotonous the work is,” says Alexander Bley, co-founder of the start-up Sewts. “In addition, the high humidity, the dust and the temperature can be stressful in the long run.”

The Munich start-up has developed control and image processing software that enables robots to predict the behavior of dimensionally unstable materials when gripping them in real time. For example, the robot knows how to take a towel out of a box and fold it best. Areas of application are primarily laundries and mail order companies.

Who is the person you are talking about?

Sewts was founded in 2019 by Bley, Till Rickert and Tim Doerks with the help of the Exist state start-up grant. During their studies at the Technical University of Munich at the Chair of Carbon Composites, the founders researched, among other things, the automated processing of easily deformable materials such as carbon fibers and textiles.

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In the same year, the team presented a first prototype and secured pre-seed financing, i.e. a round of financing in the very early stages of the company. The sponsors were individual entrepreneurs as business angels and UnternehmerTUM, a start-up center at the Technical University of Munich.

Sewts team

Sewts was founded in 2019 by Alexander Bley, Till Rickert and Tim Doerks with the help of the state start-up grant Exist.

(Photo: Sewts)

With the proceeds, the team developed a pre-series product for the laundry industry. In 2021, Apex Ventures, High-Tech Gründerfonds (HTGF) and Bayern were able to raise capital in a somewhat larger round of investors and the test in an industrial laundry could be completed.

Why is the business idea important?

Large parts of the textile industry have long since left Germany. The disadvantages became apparent in the corona pandemic. When factories in Vietnam were in lockdown and the supply chains were interrupted, sports retailers lost a lot of business because they couldn’t get enough goods. Without a higher degree of automation, however, it is difficult to imagine a return to the labour-intensive textile industry.

Laundries face a similar problem and are finding it increasingly difficult to find employees. According to Statista, there were still 3,900 laundries in Germany, about a quarter of which are likely to be industrial in size and do laundry for hotels and hospitals, for example.

According to Sewts, the threading of the textiles into the folding and mangle machines still has to be done manually. There are about 65,000 folding machines worldwide. If these were all loaded automatically, the market potential for the upstream robots would be in the tens of billions, according to Sewts. Systems for the textile industry would be the next logical step. Also conceivable are applications in the processing of foils, foams and foodstuffs and in the laying of cable harnesses.

How far is Sewts?

The company focuses primarily on the software, but also develops its own grippers and the robot cell, i.e. the entire system that can be set up in the laundry. According to industry estimates, a Velum system, as the models for the laundry industry are called, costs around 240,000 euros and should pay for itself in around two years.

The system, which can currently process 500 to 600 textiles per hour about as fast as a person, has recently been in use at the company Greif Textile Mietsysteme in Wolfratshausen, Upper Bavaria. This takes care of the laundry for major customers such as hotels.

What are the challenges?

Technologically, the first systems are ready for the market, and the lines can now be further developed. But there is competition. Providers of laundry machines like Kannegiesser have been working on their own solutions for years. In addition, specialists such as Micropsi Industries also develop AI-based software, which, for example, helps cobots to deal with variances. Traditional robots are trained to repeat exactly the same movements over and over again. In contrast, collaborative robots that, for example, get towels out of a box have to decide anew each time how to proceed.

Robotextile, which focuses on the textile industry and develops solutions that can use small robots and special grippers to remove individual layers of fabric from a stack, is already further along in the company’s development than Sewts. Michael Fraede’s company focuses primarily on hardware for everything to do with the gripper, but also develops software itself.

Fraede does not see itself as a direct competitor to Sewts. “The market is potentially so big that you don’t get in each other’s way.” Laundries accounted for only a very small proportion of the textile segment. Sewts co-founder Bley says that one could also imagine using robotextile solutions for systems for the textile industry.

According to Helmut Schmid from the German Robotics Association, the biggest challenge is not necessarily the technology. It is crucial “to make these solutions known and to bring them to the market quickly”. Here, German industry and medium-sized companies are often far too slow and reluctant to use new technologies.

What’s next?

Three more Velum systems for laundries have already been sold. Sewts is planning a total of 16 deliveries this year. “We are expecting seven-figure sales this year,” says Bley. In addition, a pilot project is currently running at a large online mail order company. The Vestis line, which processes textile returns, is to become the second mainstay. In three years, the founders can imagine a turnover of 60 to 80 million euros. Talks are currently underway for a Series A financing round with potential investors to finance the planned growth.

Every week, the Handelsblatt presents young companies that managers, entrepreneurs and those interested in business should now take a look at. The focus is on the innovation potential, which investors also pay particular attention to. The business models and ideas could also provide new impetus for products and solutions in other sectors.

More: How the robot manufacturer Kuka wants to revolutionize the construction industry.

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