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Space 'eye' for textiles

European Space Agency : 16 February, 2005  (Technical Article)
An artificial eye developed for Earth observation is now being
employed to recognise colour variations in dyed fabrics: a
critical element of textile production. This could significantly
reduce the 160 million metres of dyed fabrics discarded annually
in Europe with high environmental costs.
An artificial eye developed for Earth observation is now being
employed to recognise colour variations in dyed fabrics: a
critical element of textile production. This could significantly
reduce the 160 million metres of dyed fabrics discarded annually
in Europe with high environmental costs.

'Today most of Europe's more than 40,000 textile companies rely
on human quality control. Specialised personnel monitor fabrics
as they are produced, but this is an expensive and technically
not a very reliable method,' says Stefano Carosio, a Project
Manager at Italian company D'Appolonia, part of ESA's Technology
Transfer Programme's network.

Ideally textile manufacturers would prefer automated systems to
control colours while producing the fabrics, but until now it has
been impossible to manufacture a machine capable of even matching
the capabilities of the human eye, which can recognise more than
30 000 different colours. Space technology developed for Earth
observation has now come to the rescue, in the form of a
spectrographic system developed by Finnish company SPECIM.
Originally this was applied to remote sensing for checking the
effects of agrochemicals used by farmers, to increase efficiency
and reduce ecological damage. This system also proved capable of
recognizing colour variation in textiles.

From space to textiles

In collaboration with D'Appolonia and a group of local fabric
dyeing companies in northern Italy, the Italian University of
Como built a prototype of an optical system capable of accurately
comparing the colours in textiles. It works by checking a line
across the material and measuring the spectrum of several areas
along this line. This scans the fabric as it moves along the
production chain even at high speeds.

To reduce any complex maintenance the system is designed to be
mechanically fairly simple with no complicated scanning
mechanisms: it is the fabric that moves under the fixed eye of
the scanner.

'The system created a lot of interest among Italian textile
manufacturers at a demonstration in Como organised by the Italian
Textile and Silk Association in December 2000', says Stefano
Carosio. 'It was clear that such a system could cut costs and
improve competitiveness for European textile companies.' Backed
by ESA's Technology transfer Programme, the project now receives
financial support from the European Commission under its CRAFT

'It is one thing, however, to demonstrate the concept and another
to adapt the technology for industrial production,' explains
Stefano Carosio. 'We needed an automatic system that could
perform online textile inspection during production without
interrupting the work. To make it interesting for industry, it
had to operate at production speeds of up to 100 metres of
textiles per minute - not at all an easy requirement.'

As prime contractor the Italian company IRIS DP headed a
consortium of five European companies to develop the first
system. Called Coltex, this was presented for the first time at
the 2003 Techtextile Fair in Frankfurt.

'We received so many requests from companies for the machine that
we were sure that producing such a machine would be good business
and solve a major problem for Europe's textile industry,' says
Stefano Carosio.

The first industrial machine was ready by the end of 2003. In
2004 five machines were sold to textile companies in Italy. An
additional five machines are now scheduled for production in
2005, three for Italian companies and two for non-Italian textile

A Coltex machine has also been installed at the showroom of
CITEVE, the Technological Centre for the textile and garment
industries of Portugal, in Vila Nova de Famalic„o in the Costa
Verde region, where many Portuguese textile companies are

The results - Using the space 'eye' for textile manufacture has improved the
quality of textile production and lowered costs, as the amount of
yearly waste is significantly lower. The 160 million metres of
dyed fabrics discarded yearly in Europe correspond to a loss of
?800 million and 8000 tonnes of dyeing agents and solvents that
have to be 'cleaned', using costly procedures, to prevent
environmental pollution.

'This new system allows textile manufacturers to control
production much better. They can detect colour irregularities
immediately, right during production, and take the necessary
corrective action to avoid sending out faulty fabrics,' says
Denis Cardella, IRIS DP Project Manager for the Coltex machine.

'Textiles are produced in huge rolls, typically 35 metres for
silk and up to 2000 metres for cotton. Previously only the most
severe colour defects could be identified during manufacture, the
majority were found only when the fabric was utilised. This meant
high extra costs, unnecessary work and more material being
discarded,' explains Denis Cardella.

'Our Coltex machine raises the quality product assurance and
specifies more precisely the colour differences in a roll.
Knowing this, cloth manufacturers find it easier to optimise the
use of material and discard less.'

'It's amazing how well the camera, the artificial 'eye'
originally developed for space observation, can distinguish
colours, spot mistakes in the dyeing and even identify changes in
colour shades. We are now looking into other areas where novel
technologies, such as those developed for space, can improve
textile production in Europe,' he adds.

Pierre Brisson, Head of ESA's Technology transfer and Promotion
Office, says, 'we are delighted that technology developed for
space is being applied to reduce waste and increase quality in
the textile industry. This will make the European textile
industry more competitive: a must if we want to save jobs in an
industrial sector that is under threat in Europe'.
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