Well, I just got back from Houston, TX, where I spent a day at ABM International working with the Innova and their AutoPilot robotic quilting system. Here are my impressions and thoughts (my apologies for no pictures; the ones I took turned out all fuzzy).
The innova machine itself looks to be the next generation in quilting machine design. For example: the only place that you oil is in the bobbin mechanism — everything in the sewing head itself is sealed and requires no oil! No more adding 3-15 drops in multiple places every few hours. It is also very tolerant of different threads. My Tin Lizzie 18LS simply cannot handle Superior “Lava” thread — I think it is too smooth, and develops loops on the backside of the quilt. We went through most of Superior’s standard quilting threads: King Tut, Rainbows, Lava, Poly Quilter, and a few others — the machine handled everything. The one time the thread broke was when it was improperly wound on the cone; not the machine’s fault. The stitch speed regulator is fantastic — it will go up to 3000 (stitches per minute? rpm?) before you overwhelm the stitch regulator. Compared to the Tin Lizzie, where you have to go relatively slow to stay within the stitch regulator’s capacity, I could not go too fast for the Innova. It will sew quickly and well. The ecording system is pretty dramatic when you see it; I’m not sure of the uses for it yet in my business, but will definitely be an add-on at some point. Machine-wise, this is a great value for your money; better than Tin Lizzie, Homesteader, Voyager, Handiquilter, or the OEM’ed Pfaff and Babylock systems that just came on the market.
Frame: The frame is all-steel, and has a couple of unique qualities: First, the pick-up roller is elevated above the quilt (there is another roller directly beneath it — see the picts on their webpage for a better description) — effectively, this means that the quilt bed itself is always perfectly parallel, and you do not have to keep on raising and lowering the pick-up roller to allow for the increasing roll of the quilt. You could add up a large time-savings just with that. A couple of features that I found more interesting than I expected: the electric quilt advance is actually very useful for loading and advancing your quilt with excellent tension. It moves slowly enough that you can smooth the backing on as it loads, and use a touch of advance to control the backing tension as you move the quilt around. It’s actually very nice — much more useful than just being easier to advance the quilt. They are also offering electric channel locks controlled by a remote, which will save a lot of time when doing crosshatching or basting.
Okay, now to the AutoPilot robotic program. The program is running on an HP touch-smart all-in-one computer; you could probably also run it on a non-touch screen computer. The advantage to the all-in-one system is saving all the messy cords running around. The actual robotic motor system sits under the frame out of the way. The carriage runs on two x-direction belts and one y-direction belt, all of which can be disconnected in about a minute total. Freehanding on the system works very nicely; I did not notice the drag when the machine was off the belts. You could do some basic straight-line stitching while the machine is connected to the robot, but I doubt you could freehand since the belts are so tight. The program is encoder-based; you set the quilt area by marking the upper-left and lower-right corners, and off you go. The autopilot can import .dxf files or their proprietary .pat file. The stitch quality is _very_ good; the robotic system controls the speed of the head based on the complexity of the pattern. This can save significant time when stitching open, flowing designs, yet doesn’t lose quality when the pattern hits and intricate point. The software has all of the basic features that you would want. There are a number of things still in the works — one very important point to make is that their hardware and software engineering support and development are all in-house; the company is very excited about the new system and is eager to add-in new features to the software. I think that the software will rapidly over-take Statler’s capabilities, since they are continually upgrading the software and talking to the actual quilters.
Summary: this is a system you should look at if you are wanting a top-of-the-line quilting system with robotic capability. There are unique features that you cannot find on other systems, and an active development group to continue to improve the software base. ABM will be at a number of shows this year; I recommend you check them out!