Robotics innovation from a Georgia Tech spinoff could change the way clothing is manufactured.
The garment manufacturing industry is ripe for the introduction of automation for garment construction, but sewing is difficult for robots. Soft fabric can be hard for human sewers to control and even more difficult for a machine. However, substituting robots for human labor could reduce manufacturing costs and achieve consistent quality in the final product.
SoftWear Automation, founded seven years ago in Atlanta, already had machines that produce flat textile products like rugs, towels and automobile floor mats. In the summer of 2017, the company installed 21 t-shirt production lines in an Arkansas factory; the facility will come online in 2018. SoftWear expects to produce 800,000 t-shirts a day — one every 26 seconds for 33 cents each. One robot equals 10 human workers.
Softwear’s CEO, Palaniswamy “Raj” Rajan, explained, “Our vision is that we should be able to manufacture clothing anywhere in the world and not rely on cheap labor and outsourcing.”
The robots that turn out these piles of t-shirts — dubbed LOWRYs — are lightweight, four-axis machines that can handle fabric and execute pick-and-place actions as well as sew. A LOWRY has a high-speed — 1000 frames per second — high-resolution vision system that can identify and track distortions in fabric, such as stretching and slipping, which have confounded conventional robotic sewing machines. Robotic end effectors move fabrics as human fingers do, compensating for even small deviations from the desired fabric path.
Automating garment production offers several benefits:
- Repatriation of clothing production to the U.S.
- Job creation upstream and downstream (an estimated 50 to 100) and in the factory
- Elimination of need for skilled labor, which is in short supply
- Elimination of sweatshops and their unsafe conditions
- Localization of clothing production, benefitting local economies by bringing the supply chain closer to customers
The importance of the “Made in America” designation has increased since 2002, when Congress passed the Berry Amendment. This law requires that the U.S. armed forces manufacture uniforms domestically, yet in 2015 only three percent of clothing was produced in the country. In response to this urgent need, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, funded the Georgia Tech team that evolved into Softwear Automation.
Softwear Automation is not the sole company working on automated garment production. SewBow’s solution for floppy fabric is to stiffen fabric temporarily with polyvinyl alcohol, a water-soluble chemical that washes out easily. Fabrics that cannot be washed, such as dry-clean-only material like some wool and silk, are off-limits for SewBo. The company is garnering a lot of interest but does not yet have a commercially available machine.