Blog: Leonie BarrieTaking the labour out of garment production

Leonie Barrie | 21 June 2012

The search for ways to take human hands out of the sewing process has been underway for as long as I can remember. Research has always been driven by the need to cut labour costs and boost productivity - but has also been limited by the simple fact that nothing is as efficient or intuitive as the combination of dextrous human fingers and eyesight in aligning and adjusting the fabric parts being sewn together.

Could that all be about to change? The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) certainly hopes so, after awarding $1.26m earlier this month to a company called Softwear Automation in a bid to help turn the concept into reality by building a computer operated, unmanned sewing machine.

Its system will include a numerically-controlled sewing machine that tracks fabric movement by observing passing threads and moves the fabric under the needle stitch by stitch.

Softwear Automation says its goal is to return the production of sewn items to the US and other developed countries - and in the process make it a profitable endeavour - even though US workers won't be among the beneficiaries. It also believes its technology "appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs less than in China."

With apparel imports into the US alone worth some $77.6bn last year, there's a lot to be gained if a labour-intensive industry can be converted to one that is capital-intensive. Whether the firm can achieve its ultimate goal of "complete production facilities that produce garments with zero direct labour" remains to be seen - but will be watched with keen interest.


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