Twelve months ago, engineer Tony Cosgrove got an idea – to build a robot that could change the wool industry.
Yet the maintenance engineer, who works for the New Zealand Wool Testing Authority (NZWTA) in the Napier suburb of Ahuriri, didn’t want a sci-fi machine that imitates humans.
He just wanted something he could test wool with.
The result of his labour is a collaborative robot, or “co-bot” as Cosgrove calls it, and it could be the start of improving how New Zealand tests its world-leading wool.
NZWTA, New Zealand’s leading wool, textiles and materials testing and certification provider, is tucked away on a Bridge Street corner.
From 6am, workers are in the lab conducting tests on wool samples. They test to identify vegetable matter, length and strength, grease, microns and ash, among other things.
The co-bot will now assist in testing the colour of the wool.
Chief executive Duane Knowles said colour testing was critical for people dyeing wool.
Knowing the inherent base colour of the wool is crucial, since wool can only be dyed a lighter shade.
Knowles and Cosgrove found the outdated manual repetition of colour reading was “boring” for workers and some mistakes were being made.
“The way in which we can utilise the co-bot can certainly minimise these errors, while also benefiting our customers by improving service times,” Knowles said.
He said the co-bot could essentially work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Some workers were initially nervous about the introduction of the bot, but Knowles made it clear that it was made to be “collaborative” and to “work right next to people without any risks”.
“Our mission as NZWTA is to provide leadership to the wool industry, and one of those aspects is to provide innovation, and this really fitted that bill.”
This innovation includes the use of in-house 3D printing since 2021. Cosgrove said he had used it to print parts for the lab, including for the co-bot.
Using the three NZWTA 3D printers, Cosgrove has made 250 holders in which wool is placed before it is carried by the co-bot throughout the colour-testing process.
NZWTA found 3D printing to be a lot cheaper and easier than buying parts, because it is one of just a few wool testing organisations in the world.
“You can’t just pop down to Mitre 10 and grab a piece of equipment off the shelf,” Knowles said.
“Much of what we have is custom-built for what we do.”
Knowles said the wool industry had been criticised for being a “very traditional industry”, but several organisations were now looking at using wool in creative and innovative ways, leading the industry away from traditional bases.
“For our part of the sector, which is very much servicing the industry in terms of testing, this is our way of providing that leadership.”
Cosgrove and Knowles said they were looking to having the co-bot officially up and running within the next four to eight weeks.