Fast (forward) Fashion - Robotics in Manufacturing
In1846 Elias Howe gained a patent in America for his sewing machine. That singular invention had a dramatic impact on how clothing was manufactured from then on. Since then there have been improvements to the sewing machine itself and methods of manufacturing have changed quite a bit, but there has not been a technological innovation that has changed the apparel manufacturing process quite that drastically…until now.
As we continue the our #FastForwardFashion series about technology advancements in the apparel industry, we focus on the hot button topic of robotics in apparel manufacturing. Machines already play a vital role in nearly every stage of clothing production, but it is not a fully automated process. Currently machines do the sewing, but human hands still need to manually guide the fabric through the machines and direct each stage of the process of making it into an article of clothing. So, what are some of the newest inventions poised to disrupt century old technologies?
Some current innovations already in use
First up is the SoftWear Automation company and their SewbotsTM. This company monitors and collects data on how an item is sewn together, then they use the algorithms of the data to program their machines. Their program uses a kind of computer vision to 'watch' and analyze fabric so machines can move the material while sewing. Their robots can make a variety of items such as t-shirts, jeans, bath mats, towels, etc. This technology also claims to cut down on wasted materials by as much as 10%. The drawback of implementing these machines is that a manufacturing company would need to make the steep investment to buy new the technology for their factories. That initial cost could be too much for many current manufacturers wanting to keep their pricing competitive for their clients. SoftWear Automation has estimated the cost to create a T-shirt with their technology at thirty-three cents per shirt.
Another option is offered by the company Sewbo, which uses a method of pretreating fabric so that a factory can use off the shelf industrial robotics technology rather than more costly equipment engineered specifically for textiles. The fabric is dipped in a type of liquid plastic made of polyvinyl alcohol that renders it stiff enough to be handled by machines which would otherwise be used to cut other rigid materials like sheet metal. After the garment has been completed, the fabric is returned to its original state by washing it out with water, no detergent required. An additional benefit is that the stiffening chemical can be recycled through an evaporation process! The cost of Sewbo's method is estimated to be less than ten cents per shirt. The drawback to their technology is that not all fabrics are compatible with their process. Since it requires the fabric to be wet, materials such as wool and leather will not work. Also, it seems that the garment design must be relatively simple, such as the T-shirts they have already produced. It will be interesting to see how they can overcome these limitations.
video of Sewbo method
Tianyuan Garments Company, a Chinese clothing manufacturer, is building a plant in Arkansas for 2018 to manufacture T-shirts. The technology used will be the SewbotsTM by SoftWear Automation. Each production line will produce 1.2 million T-shirts a year. With company plans to have 21 production lines, that is 25.2 million T-shirts a year from one plant! They also project that 400 new jobs will be created.
You might be curious as to why a Chinese company would build a manufacturing plant in America. For one thing, SoftWear’s technology is currently only being sold in the U.S. Another is that is U.S. military contracts only allow clothes ‘Made in America’ to be purchased.
image via SoftWear
Some widely known negatives in the apparel manufacturing are poor working conditions and low wages. The call for transparency in accountability in the industry has been ramping up in the past several years following one of the most tragic examples of poor working conditions, the Rana Plaza incident. In 2013 this Bangladesh factory collapsed, killing over 1,000 workers and since then there has been a growing public demand for the apparel industry to improve the working conditions of the workers in production facilities. This is not always easy to police while manufacturing overseas. Bringing more manufacturing back to the U.S. means that there would be a much tighter control over and adherence to more humane working conditions. There is no easy solution, though, and there are strong arguments on both sides regarding a revival of American manufacturing. Those that do not believe it is a viable option state the lack of labor interested and the much higher cost of making an item in the U.S. as huge hurdles. If the working conditions worldwide improve (as they most certainly should), costs will most likely go up in overseas manufacturing as well, but still not enough for U.S. manufacturing to be seen as cost-competitive. Those that are proponents of U.S. manufacturing mention other benefits like lower shipping costs, quicker time to customer, and better-quality control with plants based in the U.S. These may be some of the benefits that companies like Tianyuan maybe banking on while they offset the manual labor costs with robotics and automation.