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Changing Asian Economics Sew Seeds for Automation Growth in Textile Industry

POSTED 07/01/2013

 | By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor

Traditionally, the textile industry has depended on millions of skilled hands and eyes and a plethora of low-cost labor. For these reasons, China and India have become leaders in the manufacture of textiles – from fiber and cloth manufacturing to apparel.

While many industries have “gone East” in search of low-cost labor, in recent years companies have realized that logistical costs, supply chain issues, quality, and the speed of commerce mean that producers need to be close to regional customer bases – both in thought and deed. Through the use of automation, many of these companies have sought to “reshore” their operations to move production closer to the customer.

Textiles have resisted this trend toward using automation to reduce production costs. However, following the Great Recession of 2008, that could be changing as Chinese and Indian textile companies take a fresh look at automation while higher-margin textile and related industries continue to adopt automation, including machine vision, as a way to keep production close to the customer.

The Chinese Textile Market

Today, China is the largest producer and exporter of textiles and clothes. In 2009, China produced more than half of the manmade fibers in the world, according to China Research and Intelligence Co., Ltd. In the viscose-rayon fiber sector, for example, China produced 1.51 million metric tons of viscose filaments and staple fibers, accounting for more than one-third of the global output. In 2011, the output value of China’s textile industry accounted for 7.11% of China's GDP, or more than CNY 3,277 billion. However, rising costs for raw materials and labor are changing the way the Chinese textile industry operates, prompting this sleeping giant to adopt more automation to stay globally competitive.

“As the prices of raw materials keep rising, textile companies need to improve the precision of production processes to reduce the waste of raw materials,” says Gao Yong, Vice President of the China Textile Industry Association (CTIA).  “Textile producers are also seeking to increase the automation of production machines to reduce labor costs and avoid the threat of a labor-force shortage. Automated textile machine makers will benefit from this trend.” According to Yong, textile-manufacturing salaries increased 15% annually between 2004 and 2009. And, as the baby boom generation of the 1950s retires, the labor-force shortage is becoming a serious problem for many Chinese textile producers.

PCs Dominate Asian Machine Vision

When it comes to machine vision solutions in China, most manufacturers prefer a PC-based approach to a smart camera solution because of the availability of low-cost PCs in Asia. “Smart cameras had a good run around the world from 2000 to 2010, but today, we’re seeing fast growth among our PC-based solutions,” explains Gary Kocken, Machine Vision Specialist for Datalogic Automation (Bloomington, Minnesota). “Especially if it’s a multi-camera system.”

Datalogic Automation, previously PPT Vision, sells the MX embedded PC-based machine vision processor along with cameras from partners Teledyne DALSA (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), JAI (San Jose, California), and Basler AG (Ahrensburg, Germany). “For example, we can sell a Celeron-based dual-core PC box with Impact Software Suite machine vision program for $5,000,” Kocken notes. “If you add a pair of 2-megapixel cameras at $1,700 each, that’s $8,400, not including lighting and lensing. A single 2-MP smart camera will cost upwards of $8,000, so we’re half the price. And thanks to the move toward digital cameras, using our vision processor with our Impact software, you plug in the cameras, use our graphic interface to program the system, and you’re pretty much ready to go.”

This cost-effective approach appeals to Asia markets used to inexpensive PCs, but can the Asian manufacturing customer do better on their own?

“Yes, there are a lot of low-cost PCs from Taiwan and other locations, but if a customer tries to create a home-brewed C++ or MatLab-based vision solution, it’s going to take months no matter what,” Kocken says. “And after you get it working, you’re still putting your production at the whims of an untested hardware and software solution. Our software is a product that’s thoroughly quality tested. And our MX box is based on a PC104 form factor, which is an industrial and military spec versus a consumer-based PC platform. It’s solid state, can handle more heat and humidity, and that’s important to industries such as China’s textile industry.”

He continues: “We also use Intel and AMD’s embedded line of processors, which are designed for rugged environments and supported longer than standard consumer products. If you base your machine vision system on a standard PC, and a consumer NIC card dies on you, good luck finding an exact replacement. That, or you have to relook at your program to make sure that the hardware changes won’t affect your overall vision performance. With the MX, you don’t have that problem because we vet and support both the hardware and software.”

Interestingly, Kocken’s position on industrial PCs is supported by recent reports from IMS Research, which predicted that industrial PC use in China would grow 10% per year through 2013. ARC Advisory Group adds, “Asia has its own dynamics in terms of the investment climate and in industrial PC supply and demand. In Asia's emerging markets, Taiwanese industrial PC suppliers dominate this price-driven market, which is slowing sharply with the global economy. Taiwan hosts a number of different companies, which range from component-driven companies that are moving up the supply chain to established automation suppliers. ARC believes that China and India will not only demand more automation equipment as wages rise, but will also shift towards more sophisticated systems with greater capabilities for achieving international quality standards.”