Automation and robotics were among the key trends on show at last week's Texprocess Americas exhibition. These industry-changing technologies have the potential to bridge the industry's skills gap, increase productivity in apparel manufacturing, and drive speed to market, according to exhibitors.

Dave Gardner, managing director of SPESA (the Sewn Products Equipment Suppliers of the Americas) and a long-time observer of the apparel industry, believes the recent resurgence of textile and apparel manufacturing in the US is a bona fide trend.

Among the factors he cites are textile firms from India and China investing in US facilities.

Commenting to a group of journalists at last week's Texprocess Americas exhibition and symposium in Atlanta, which is co-produced by SPESA, Gardner said: "Technology is critical to our industry. The biggest newest thing for our show is automation and robotics."

These industry-changing technologies were clearly evident during the three-day Atlanta event, both in the exhibit hall and the symposium rooms.

One of the Texprocess Americas Symposium sessions focused on robotics and other forms of automation. One of the presentations came from KP Reddy, CEO of Atlanta-based SoftWear Automation, a robotics and computing firm that specialises in technologies targeting apparel manufacturing and the sewn products industries.

"There is a huge need for automation in the apparel sector," said Reddy. "Outside of the obvious ethical reasons around eliminating sweatshop labour, the biggest force driving manufacturers to automate their processes is the lack of skilled labour.

"Globally, it has become increasingly difficult to find, train, and retain skilled seamstresses. As the more skilled workers begin to retire there is no talent pool to replace them whether you are in the US or Bangladesh. Millennials the world over are moving to city centers and are generally uninterested in factory work making robots the next logical step to fill this skills gap."

Reddy said symposium attendees were surprised to learn that many robotic solutions to apparel manufacturing needs are available now, not research projects that are five to ten years away.

"The feedback at our booth mirrored this same thinking," Reddy said. "Attendees were shocked to see that flexible, lightweight robotics are available now for multiple sewing operations."

Apparel industry ripe for robotics

Henderson Sewing Machine Co, an Andalusia, Alabama-based supplier of industrial sewing machines, may have had the most robotic stand in Atlanta. The company displayed several examples of the use of robotics in various types of sewing. Frank Henderson, the company's CEO, was also a symposium panelist. He believes the evolving apparel industry is ripe for robotics.

"Robotics are more affordable than ever," Henderson said. "Repetitive motion manufacturing jobs are jobs that can be automated today."

Although his company is not yet involved in robotics, Jason Adams, president of Lectra North America, said it has been touting the benefits of an automated manufacturing operation for some time. 

"It's why we demonstrated advanced cutting solutions at Texprocess Americas," he said. "The demonstrations focused on how cutters and software can work together efficiently and reliably to deliver products faster. Ultimately, I believe our target industries – fashion and apparel, automotive and furniture – will invest in manufacturing innovation and see the benefits it can bring.

"Many of our customers have approached us with this challenge. They know it needs to be done. They're just not sure how to get started."

Ed Gribbin, president of apparel industry consultancy Alvanon, participated in a symposium session on how technology is implemented to increase productivity in apparel manufacturing.  There is a great need for speed to market and technology is the answer. He said he takes a holistic approach to automation.

"Technology is helping retailers not only produce more effectively, but also buy the right products, even to understand what the consumer wants almost before they want it. There are tons of analytic programmes out there that help companies make smarter buying decisions and produce smaller quantities. In some cases, RFID technology is helping people manage inventories over multiple locations."

Gribbin noted that the developing technology of 3D virtual product development is speeding products to market much faster, even to half or a quarter of the normal 12 to 18-month development process.

Gerber Technology featured its Digital Solution, which is an end-to-end, integrated solution that the company says seamlessly passes information from one process to another complete with the software to network smart machines and smart products and enable full collaboration along the way. 

It includes products like YuniquePLM, Gerber's AccuMark CAD system, and its line of smart machines from intelligent plotters to self-monitoring GerberCutters and GerberConnect which helps to produce reports to optimise operating efficiency and remotely monitor equipment, putting big data to use.

These products are integrated to enable both the mass production and mass customisation of technical textile and fabric related products and work together to help customers go from concept to market quickly and efficiently, according to Bill Grindle, the company's chief marketing officer.

Productivity improvements

Coats reported a positive mood among visitors to its stand. The company's main highlight at Texprocess Americas was its acquisition of GSD (Corporate) Ltd, a partnership meant to maximise productivity improvements that meet both cost efficiency and social compliance needs.

Coats touted the combination of GSD's specialist technical knowledge, data integrity and industry experience coupled with the global reach, industry stature and consulting expertise of Coats Global Services.

Key technologies that Coats highlighted at the show included the new version 4.81 Productivity Software Suite, aimed at improving manufacturing efficiency, with an intuitive user interface, enhanced filtering capabilities, and multi-database synchronisation.

The company is now offering an offline/tablet version of its Productivity Software Suite. Methods created on the factory floor can now be synchronised with the rest of the business at any time creating a more efficient workflow.

And five new product libraries are available for Coats' Fast Fashion customers. The new product libraries help to standardise and communicate time, cost and capacity throughout the supply chain.

"Technology is all around us, and we rely on it to make our lives easier and more efficient at work, at home, and on the go," said Lectra's Adams.

"Consumers are demanding, and this is apparent with fashion and apparel, furniture, and automotive manufacturers. They [consumers] want customised products faster, and technology helps manufacturers deliver them faster. Many of our customers confirmed this at the show, and this is one of the factors driving their buying considerations."

Last year just-style took a closer look at Softwear Automation's work 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.

Can robotics redefine the future of apparel manufacturing?