Can robotics redefine the future of apparel manufacturing?
Softwear Automation's SAM-1000 with threadcount technology
As Wal-Mart ramps up its efforts to reshore more US clothing production, the recipient of a $2m grant from the retailer’s Innovation Fund talks about progress in developing systems to automate apparel-making.
From sewbots to budgers, Sam, TED and Lowry, the language – and technology – of garment production could soon be about to change.
At least that’s the hope of Georgia Tech spin-off Softwear Automation, which is working to redefine the future of sewn products manufacturing with a range of robotic sewing machines capable of automating the more difficult and labour-intensive tasks in apparel-making.
And it’s a vision shared by US retail giant Wal-Mart, which believes the new generation of robotics could hold the key to changing the face of how clothing can be made competitively in the US.
In July, the retailer opened up the latest round of its Innovation Fund, offering grants with a focus exclusively on textiles.
The scheme is part of its wider goal of sourcing an extra US$50bn in US-made products over the next ten years – a cumulative investment of $250bn by 2023 – and is prompted by the recent admission that buying more of its apparel from domestic suppliers “is difficult but certainly not impossible.”
The Fund, launched last year, has committed $10m over five years to fund innovations, and has so far awarded seven grants worth $4.2m.
The template for the type of research it hopes to fund was set with Softwear Automation last year, with the company receiving a $2m grant to develop its robotic sewing technologies for the clothing industry.
“Wal-Mart gave us $2m to figure out how to automate the supply chain,” explains SoftWear’s CEO KP Reddy. “We are incredibly optimistic that Wal-Mart will reach their goal to have all fabric-based products sold in stores made in the US,” he tells just-style, “not only because the technology is here, but because Wal-Mart is showing the determination to make that happen.
“Wal-Mart has the means and leverage to lead the way in reshoring apparel production to the US and they are showing that they are willing to put their money and influence behind this goal. That is a recipe for success.”
Confirming to just-style that its first Lowry product – a four-axis gantry style robot that automates fabric handling, pick and place operations and direct sewing – shipped earlier this year, where it is being used for automated sewing of home goods, the company says it is currently accepting more orders for this product, as well as its other sewbots.
SoftWear Automation believes its “disruptive technology” has the potential to tackle a number of the challenges facing garment manufacturing – including the high cost and shortage of skilled labour in the US, the financial and environmental cost of shipping textiles and apparel over long-distances, and the increasing need for smaller production lots, more customisation and flexibility for design changes, faster turnaround times and reduced inventory requirements.
“With our technology, most of the products can be made in the US at the same price [as low labour cost factories overseas],” Reddy believes.
“Our machines can run for 24 hours straight – which is much longer than a traditional shift by a seamstress,” he explains. “Additionally, the precision is much greater, so there is less wasted product.
“Our product QualiSight can detect defects in the fabric before it is used. When working in conjunction with our Budgers [individual parts of a 360° conveyor system that work in unison to move fabric panels in any direction across a surface], a manufacturer could drastically increase productivity and efficiency.”
He also suggests that in the same way the 3D printer is changing traditional manufacturing and prototyping, “our devices will revolutionise the apparel industry by allowing designers to instantly fabricate their fashion line and create clothing beyond the capabilities and precision of human hands.”
When used together, the systems replicate the functions currently performed by a human operator, and include a high-speed, machine vision system coupled to an innovative material manipulation and material handling sub-system.
The Lowry automates the handling of fabric and garment parts as they enter the automated sewing operation, while Threadvision is a high-speed vision system that counts the individual threads in a fabric at the rate of 1,000 threads per second, tracking their intersections like a grid pattern.
This ensures “we are able to prevent bunching and maintain precision in any fabric,” says Reddy, explaining how the technology has been able to allow accurate stitching by overcoming the problem of distortion as the flexible fabric moves through the sewing process.
Linked to this is an Automatic Sewing Machine (SAM) that uses Threadvision to position and move the fabric under the needle, stitch by stitch, at the proper pace, and can independently control two pieces of fabric for 3D sewing. Its sewing precision is said to be in the range of +/- 1 thread.
The new generation of robotics also puts automated manufacturing within the reach of small companies and even individual designers who want to produce lots of small runs of different ideas.
The cost of the Lowry, for example, starts at just $30,000 and is customisable to suit the needs of a manufacturer. “In most cases, each Lowry pays for itself within the first year - due to the savings in time and labour,” Reddy explains.
Asked if there are any fabrics or assembly operations that have been hard to automate, he says: “We have not had a request to date that our sewbots were not capable of automating. With that said, there are plenty of sewn products left for us to explore. We look forward to being presented with unique sewn products to automate.”
He also suggests that while the initial focus of the research has been to provide tools to help reshore apparel production back to the US, there is also interest from manufacturers in low-wage countries overseas. “We have been surprised at the amount of interest overseas, mostly in Asia but also in South America.”
But with pressure on manufacturers around the world to keep wages low while improving working conditions and productivity, it is perhaps not unexpected that many are looking at automation too.
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