In today’s world, the low retail prices of clothing often stem from low-cost manufacturing methods. While offshore labor markets were previously utilized for production, the landscape is now changing as companies turn to robots to produce consumer goods more affordably and efficiently. Discover how robotics in clothing is revolutionizing the garment industry, where robotics and automation are transforming the industry’s productivity, cost efficiency, and supply chain dynamics.
Revolutionizing Clothing Manufacturing: Robotics in Clothing
SoftWear Automation’s LOWRY, the automated sewing machine, exemplifies this transformative trend. The company’s ambitious initiative to revolutionize the textile industry using robotics mirrors other successful automation ventures in various sectors.
Automating sewing posed unique challenges due to the fabric’s flexible, stretchable, warping, and folding nature. Despite these obstacles, SoftWear Automation began its journey in automated sewing research more than a decade ago at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center. Remarkable progress ensued through collaboration with the Walmart Foundation and a substantial $1.25 million research grant from DARPA, the Defense Department’s tech innovation arm, which prioritizes clothing made in the U.S., highlighting the direct impact of this research.
Working Principle of Automated Sewbots: Robotics in Clothing
The methodology behind Automated Sewbots is both innovative and intricate. With multiple patents, including several pending, SoftWear’s system relies on highly calibrated machine vision to observe and analyze fabric, detecting any distortions and making real-time robotic adjustments. Across a 70-foot long t-shirt production line, the robot undertakes various tasks, from cutting and sewing seams to adding sleeves and conducting quality inspections. Computer vision serves as an indispensable guide throughout each step of fabric handling.
TMeticulous programming initiates the process by extracting sew data from Gerber’s Accumark files, enabling a seamless integration of design data and establishing a direct link between the designer’s vision and the robot’s actions. SoftWear’s patented machine vision system demonstrates superior accuracy, exceeding that of the human eye, precisely tracking needle placement to within half a millimeter. This advanced system can identify individual threads within the fabric, achieved through a specialized high-speed camera capturing over 1,000 frames per second and cutting-edge image-processing algorithms.
Using this precise machine vision and real-time analysis, the robotics team continually manipulates and adjusts the fabric to ensure optimal positioning. Micromanipulators, powered by precise linear actuators, guide the cloth through the sewing machine with submillimeter precision, compensating for material distortions.
Two methods are employed to move the fabric effectively. The first is a four-axis robotic arm with a vacuum gripper, lifting and placing the fabric with ease. The second involves a 360-degree conveyor system comprising embedded spherical rollers, also known as Budger Balls. These rollers operate independently at high speeds, relocating or smoothing the fabric as needed.
The sewing process itself deviates from traditional methods. Instead of the fabric moving through a stationary sewing machine, the Sewbots move the needle, resulting in an innovative direct sewing process.
Advantages of Automated Robots
The continuous advancements in Automated Sewbots are transforming the clothing manufacturing industry, offering precision, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness that could revolutionize the future of textiles and consumer goods production.
Chinese clothing manufacturer Tianyuan Garments Company, producing for Adidas and Armani, opens a factory in Arkansas, thanks to automated sewing technology replacing traditional labor.
Robotic production lines reduce the workforce by 50-70%, with 21 lines requiring only 3-5 workers each, compared to 10 on a conventional line. The increased efficiency boosts t-shirt production by 71%, reaching 1.2 million t-shirts annually.
Sewing robots make U.S. production costs competitive with overseas manufacturing. A denim shirt costs $0.22 in Bangladesh, $7.47 with U.S. workers, and just $0.33 with a robotic production line.
SoftWear emphasizes “sew local” to shorten manufacturing-to-consumer distance. While robots could provide a solution for an aging U.S. garment workforce, they might disrupt low-wage worker-dependent Asian industries.
The future holds potential for AI, ML, and cognitive computing to impact 47% of U.S. jobs. Robotic textile manufacturing focuses on simple, high-quantity pieces but could extend to on-demand apparel production, like Amazon’s patented system.