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Can Automated Sewing Transform the Apparel Industry?

While Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technology has been spreading and transforming most areas of manufacturing, it has been widely believed that the apparel industry would remain immune to this revolution. Apart from powering sewing machines with electricity, the industry has remained almost unchanged since the industrial revolution of the 1800’s.  

However, in 2018 things started to change as sewing robots were launched on the market. These sewing robots are an example of how a few companies have devised solutions to tackle the challenges that for many years prevented automation from entering into the apparel industry.

With the news circulating in the apparel industry that fully automated sewing machines have been introduced, several questions on what the future holds for the apparel industry have been raised:

  • • How efficient are sewing robots?
  • • What are the benefits of implementing automated sewing?
  • • Are sewing robots a threat for garment workers?

Sewing Robots

There are several reasons why sewing robots have taken so long to make their appearance on the scene. Sewing is a very complex process and human dexterity and intuition are difficult to replace.

One of the major problems, for instance, is that fabric is not a rigid material. A piece of fabric can stretch, fold, crease, shift, or pucker. Moreover, fabrics may have imperfections that need to be corrected. Other challenges are posed by the need to align panels to match patterns, inserting buttonholes, grommets, zippers, and so on. All these processes are relatively simple if carried out under the control of the human eye and by expert hands, but they are extremely complicated for a machine. 

Another important variable is connected with the endless varieties of fabrics available. Fabrics vary in thickness, level of stretch and waves; all requiring a different approach. Designing a robot that can adapt to the different fabrics without compromising the quality of the final product was another roadblock to apparel industry automation.

For many years, engineers haven’t been able to find a suitable solution to handle these tasks efficiently and in a cost-effective way. Of course, automation has existed in the apparel industry, but it has been limited to specific operations like cutting the fabric. As far as producing a garment, starting from the fabric to the finished product, the industry hasn’t been able to embrace technology and automate the production line fully.

In 2018, however, a few solutions were presented, and fully automated sewing machines were introduced into the industry.

Sewing Robot by Softwear

How Automated Sewing Works

At the moment, there are two options for aiding in the use of automated sewing machines. They are based on different solutions to the common problems associated with automated sewing machines.

Softwear Automation, an Atlanta based company, has created a robot called LOWRY. The robot, starting from just fabric, can create a T-shirt in less than two minutes which is an impressive result. LOWRY utilizes multiple high-speed vision cameras that send input to the actuators. The cameras take thousands of images per second, which allows LOWRY to understand where the fabric is at all times and then to make necessary fine-tuned adjustments and compensations. This robot operates with half a millimeter accuracy.

SoftWear announced that they will install 21 automated sewing machine lines at Tianyuan Garments, a company in Suzhou, China. They are the largest apparel producer for Adidas. Thanks to the new automated sewing machine, the company is expected to produce 800,000 shirts daily. 

Another solution has been presented by the Seattle software developer, Jonathan Zornow, who has created an industrial robot called Sewbo. To undertake the complexity of working with a nonrigid material, he devised a way to manipulate the fabric to make it compatible with the automated sewing machine.

A water-soluble stiffener is applied to the fabric that makes it temporarily rigid. After this process, the robot can handle the fabric exactly as it would a metal or plastic sheet. The robot can therefore cut, flip, sew, and move the pieces of fabric with accuracy. Once the garment is finished, it is soaked in hot water to remove the stiffener and bring the fabric back to its original form.

sewbot
Automated Sewing Machine by Sewbo

Benefits of Automated Sewing Robots

Considering the figures presented by SoftWear, it is apparent that companies who decide to automate the production lines will experience several benefits.

According to a report by SoftWear, one of their robots can produce approximately 1,142 T-shirts in eight hours. To produce the same number of T-shirts without a robot, it requires 10 workers, all working at full speed. The automated process will increase production and at the same time significantly drop production costs. Every T-shirt produced by an automated sewing machine is expected to cost just $0.33.

This cost is significantly lower than any cheap labor market around the world where prices are constantly on the rise. Therefore, an automated sewing system will make it possible for companies, not only to save money, but also to move production closer to their headquarters.

On the other hand, there are still some issues that will slow down the shift to a totally automated system. Fashion is a fast-changing business and some companies introduce new models on their production line almost daily. A company using sewing robots must constantly program the machines with a new set of rules every time a new style needs to be produced. 

Even opting for a robot that requires stiffening the fabric comes with limitations. Some materials such as wool or leather cannot be stacked in water, therefore these materials will still need to be handled manually.

Before deciding to switch to an automated production line, these pros and cons must be evaluated by companies to determine if a sewing robot will really be cost effective.

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A Real Threat for Garment Workers?

Another major debate about the introduction of sewing robots has to do with the future of seamsters and seamstresses. There are areas of the world where the garment industry provides a means of living to a large part of the population, especially for people that have little education but sufficient manual skills for sewing.

Now, with the introduction of sewing robots, their position may be at risk. For instance, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), nearly 90 percent of textile, clothing, and footwear workers could eventually be replaced by robots in Cambodia and Vietnam.  The same figures apply to China, India, and Bangladesh where the clothing industry provides work for millions of people.

The producers of sewing robots point to the fact that even an automated line will still need a certain number of workers. According to their point of view, once companies relocate production back home, they will contribute to boosting their local economy. It must be noted, in any case, that the number of labourers needed to manage an automated line are considerably less than what is currently needed. Therefore, even if a local economy benefits from the new technology, on a global scale there will be a loss of jobs.

Many companies are currently organizing themselves to update their production line to all automated sewing machines. However, at the moment, the vast majority of the world’s production is still done by human hands. It is reasonable to think that it will take a considerable amount of time for the entire industry to switch over to full automation. Most likely, many sectors will still need a good amount of human seamsters and seamstresses. Of course, that will become a niche market, and there will not be enough positions to reemploy all those who will lose their jobs.

 

The future of the garment industry may look bright for apparel companies and sewing robot producers and other digitization or automation services and equipment providers. The future, instead, looks gloomy for seamsters and seamstresses who are at high risk of losing their only means of support. At country level, in Bangladesh for example, where apparel manufacturing is a core contributor to the economy, the impact will be drastic.

As this issue sinks in, apparel factories are starting to take initiatives to pilot projects to educate workers and equip them with new technology, quality, safety and compliance and other more advanced skills. Start-ups are also investing this field. Shimmy Technologies for example, a New-York based venture, is running beta pilot tests in garment factories in Bangladesh with the goal to enable the transition of female workers to better-paid  and more-value added roles that will better protect their employability. 

Given the scale of the problem though there is an urgent need and shared responsibility for stakeholders internationally, at government, industry and corporate level to collaborate to build a framework to mitigate the consequences of the rise of automation and to upskill garment industry workers. 

Our 2020 ‘State of Skills in the Apparel Industry’ Report is due this Spring, to get your copy and further news and insights from MOTIF, simply subscribe to our newsletter!

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