An end to ironing boardom

UK engineers are planning an assault on the last bastion of domestic drudgery by developing an ironing machine.

Researchers at two universities aim to create a device suitable for domestic use within four years, in what is claimed to be the world’s first serious attempt to crack the technical challenges posed by automating the ironing process.

Specialists in robotics, mechanical engineering and textile technology from King’s College London and the University of Newcastle will work on the project.

They have received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to carry out an initial study into the technical requirements of thesystem.

Dr Jian Dai of King’s College’s department of mechanical engineering admitted the complex nature of ironing made the project ‘hugely challenging’ on several fronts.As well as manipulating its ironing tools and the clothes themselves, the machine would need to avoid the common pitfall of burning a hole in the material.

‘The robot needs to know what type of garment it is ironing, so it will have to include some kind of sensor that allows it to recognise what it is dealing with and how to treat it,’ said Dai.

Researchers are currently building classifications for the various types of clothing and materials in an attempt to create a set of ironing rules which a robotic system could follow.

Dai said instructions readable by the robot’s sensor could be encoded into tags attached to garments by their manufacturers – a hi-tech version of washing instructions sewn into clothes.

The pressing would be done by a combination of robot grippers and a specialist ironing attachment.

These would unfold, iron, and re-fold the clothes, leaving the user with nothing more to do but put them in the drawer.

‘This is very difficult, because it poses specific challenges to the dexterity and manipulation abilities of the robot,’ said Dai. He pointed out that robotic systems have been successfully developed to carry out complex tasks before – especially for industrial applications.

‘This would certainly not be an adaptation of an existing robot,’ said Dai. ‘It would be a robot built specifically to deal with this task.’

The finished system, he said, could be encased in a lidded cabinet small enough to be stored easily in the home.

The project team will spend the next six months carrying out a detailed evaluation of currently available technologies which could be used to create the automated ironer.

They are meeting suppliers to major clothes retailers such as Marks and Spencer.

The researchers then plan to establish a consortium including other universities and industrial partners, leading to production of a working model by the end of 2006.Dai admitted that any ironing machine emerging from their work would initially be expensive, but claimed that production costs would reduce over time in common with other labour-saving devices.