Folded material napkins are an essential part of any properly set table and add just the right atmosphere in which to enjoy good food. While hobby cooks with a little experience might need just a few minutes to fold the napkins they need, the same activity devours much more time and ties up staff in hotels and restaurants, where several hundreds or even thousands of napkins are used every day. This was also the experience of Kartal Can, the founder and managing director of Rofobox GmbH in Kornwestheim, which inspired him to develop the worlds first napkin-folding machine. "On my first day of work in a large hotel, my first task was to fold napkins. After ten minutes I already had enough of it, but still had a couple of hours of folding left to do," recalls Can. "Why is there no machine for this? Almost everyone working in the hotel and catering business has already asked themselves this question. I simply decided to make the idea a reality."
Kartal Cans team has been working on the development of the fully automated Robot Folding Box (Rofobox for short) since the beginning of 2008. The product has several benefits for the hotel and catering business: automatic napkin folding is much more hygienic and consistent and relieves staff of a monotonous and unpopular task. "It costs around 20 cents to fold a napkin by hand. The folding machine cuts costs to just half this figure. For larger hotels that need around half a million napkins per year, this results in significant cost savings," says the Rofobox managing director.
Depending on its operating time, Rofobox can currently fold up to 700,000 material napkins per year in seven pre-programmed shapes - from the candle to the pyramid and the Sydney Opera. In future the machine is to also be able to produce shapes designed individually for customers, add a subtle fragrance to the napkins or fold cutlery into the napkins. Launderettes can also use the machine and offer folded napkins as a new service for small and medium-sized hotels and restaurants. Other potential customers include cruise ships and theme parks. Rofobox is easy to use and does not require any additional skilled staff. At its core is the folding unit, where several robotic arms work in unison. These arms grip the napkin and fold it on a revolving table. In between the individual steps, an image detection system measures the dimensions of the napkin and detects whether for example the corners are exactly aligned. "The Rofobox is an absolute high-tech product. There is nothing of its kind anywhere else in the world at present," according to managing director Kartal Can. There was one special challenge for the team to master during the development process: material napkins fall into the category of materials that are limp to bending. Unlike metal or paper, they change their shape over time. The company, based in Kornwestheim, has already registered a patent for the folding device especially for napkins and for materials that are limp to bending in general.
The companys development and business model is based on division of labour. The project comprises several investors that each focus on their specialist area and invest in the project. Apart from coming up with the founding idea, the managing director Kartal Can is also responsible for managing and coordinating all those involved. Martin, an engineering firm based in Ludwigsburg, took charge of designing the product, while development was carried out by the Faude Group, a production and automation specialist located in Gärtringen. The latter will also be responsible for the service and maintenance of the machines at a later stage. Baden-Württembergs Mechatronics competence network (Kompetenznetz Mechatronik) established the link to Esslingen University of Applied Sciences, which is also involved in the development. "The Stuttgart Region has a unique infrastructure in the field of mechatronics. Thats why Rofobox made a conscious decision to work together with the companies and research institutes in this region," says Can.
Since April a prototype of the product has been in continuous use, folding napkins day-in day-out in Europes largest event and seminar centre, the Estrel Hotel in Berlin. The machine has already folded over 10,000 napkins, which are then quickly placed on the tables. The company has been accepting orders for the Rofobox since its official presentation at the end of June in Berlin. According to the Rofobox managing director, there are already several interested parties.