T-Shirts and Blue Jeans: Automating Apparel Manufacturing in the U.S.
The textile industry is no stranger to automation, since robotic applications have been used for various purposes for many years.
However, when it comes to the detailed sewing needed for the creation of apparel, getting a robot to do that work has been more difficult.
Experts say the uncooperative nature of fabric is largely to blame.
Known for its floppy tendencies, most fabric requires continual corrections to ensure proper alignment during the sewing process—which is why this step is largely done manually.
Although there are various types of sewing robots available, two companies making a big impression in this context are SoftWear Automation—the creator of Sewbots®—and Sewbo.
The first addresses the sewing conundrum from the robotic perspective and although the latter also includes a robotic component, its primary focus is on the fabric itself.
Based in Atlanta, SoftWear Automation describes itself as an “advanced machine-vision and robotics startup disrupting the $1.5 trillion apparel industry.”
The company says its “fully automated Sewbots” enable “on-demand manufacturing by moving supply chains local and closer to the customer, while creating higher quality products at comparable cost to imports from low-wage countries.”
Noting that handling textiles is one of the areas which the rapid evolution of technology hasn’t effectively addressed, Software Automation describes the difficulties involved:
“Computer controlled cutting has alleviated bottlenecks in the cutting room. Yet, the only real solution around handling mass quantities of textiles has been to chase cheap labor around the globe.”
Launched in 2012 at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Georgia Research Alliance, Software Automation says it had “a vision to use advanced robotics to fully automate sewn products and reimagine supply chains.”
“After 9 years of R&D in collaboration with Georgia Tech, DARPA, and the WALMART Foundation along with three rounds of private venture capital, SoftWear Automation’s fully autonomous Sewbot worklines enable sewn goods manufacturing locally at scale, moving supply chains closer to the customer while creating higher quality sewn products in the most sustainable way at a competitive cost,” the company says.
Along a similar thread, Sewbo says it is also “bringing automation to the sewing industry.”
“Our unique approach to fabric handling enables off-the-shelf industrial robots to work with a wide range of fabric and sewing machines,” the company says. “Use of robotics will lower costs and lead times, allowing for more responsive manufacturing and less waste.
Reprogrammable systems also enable new concepts like on-demand manufacturing of custom-fit clothing.”
Sewbo also notes that despite “widespread use” across other industries, automation has made “little progress in clothing manufacturing due to the difficulties robots face when trying to manipulate limp, flexible fabrics.”
“Sewbo avoids these hurdles by temporarily stiffening fabrics, allowing off-the-shelf industrial robots to easily build garments from rigid cloth, just as if they were working with sheet metal,” the company says. “The fabric panels can be easily molded and welded before being permanently sewn together. The water-soluble stiffener is removed at the end of the manufacturing process with a simple rinse in hot water, leaving a soft, fully assembled piece of clothing. The stiffener can then be recovered for reuse.”
It says that although the technology is intended as a “general-purpose solution,” the company’s current focus is on “large-scale blue jean production as we bring the product to market. As the technology matures, the robots’ capabilities will be expanded to other product types.”
In 2016, Sewbo announced that it had “achieved the long-sought goal of automated sewing, by using an industrial robot to sew together a T-shirt.”
Source: Sewbo on YouTube
More recently, the company made news due to its participation in several projects last year—including the “Bot Couture” project.
The Bot Couture Project
According to a March 29, 2022 posting by the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute—which sponsored the project—the Bot Couture project team included Siemens Technology (PI), Sewbo, Henderson Sewing, Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC), and Bluewater Defense.
Like others, ARM noted that although the apparel manufacturing sector is “ripe for automation,” integrating robots has been difficult since they have difficulty “manipulating and handling pliable materials.”
However, the organization said it has completed six projects since 2018 that “have significantly advanced the state of the art in robotic sewing.” It also emphasized that such efforts increase the potential for re-shoring apparel manufacturing.
“The teams’ early work integrated sewing machines with collaborative robot systems and designed an end effector capable of lifting and controlling a single large ply of fabric,” ARM said. “Recent projects have built upon these developments to be able to robotically conduct more advanced operations like hemming, fabric fusing, pocket setting, and curved stitches.”
ARM said that on February 24, 2022, the Bot Couture project team “demonstrated the latest robotic sewing technology in the construction of denim pants at the Levi Strauss Innovation Center in San Francisco, CA.”
Source: ARM Institute on Vimeo
While the re-shoring potential offers promising news for U.S. apparel manufacturing overall, this is especially true for the Department of Defense (DOD)—which buys “an extraordinary amount” of sewn products and needs a secure supply chain to obtain them.
Quoted in the post, Auralis Herrero-Lugo, Commercial Product Manager at Bluewater Defense described the impact of the project: “Thanks to the ARM Institute, we can come together and provide viable solutions to problems all manufacturers have, not just us at Bluewater. This project is the beginning of an automation journey that is much needed in the garment manufacturing industry, a sector of the economy that has not seen a lot of innovation in the past. The ARM Institute helped us connect with other members like Henderson Sewing Machine Company, Sewbo, Siemens, and Levi’s to come together and pursue this common goal.”
About the ARM Institute
A Manufacturing Innovation Institute (MII) funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Agreement Number W911NF-17-3-0004, the ARM Institute is part of the Manufacturing USA® network.
The organization says it leverages “a unique, robust, and diverse ecosystem of 300+ consortium members and partners across industry, academia, and government to make robotics, autonomy, and artificial intelligence more accessible to U.S. manufacturers large and small, train and empower the manufacturing workforce, strengthen our economy and global competitiveness, and elevate national security and resilience.”
Since 2017, the ARM Institute has been based in Pittsburgh, PA and says it is “leading the way to a future where people & robots work together to respond to our nation’s greatest challenges and to produce the world’s most desired products.”
In October of last year, the organization announced that it is opening a second office, which will be located in the Tampa Bay Innovation Center in St. Petersburg, FL.
“Florida was the logical choice for the ARM Institute’s second location,” said Suzy Teele, ARM Institute Chief Strategy Officer in the announcement. “There are over 13,000 manufacturing organizations in critical industry sectors such as aerospace, electronics, defense, apparel, and food production that can greatly benefit from advanced automation.
Florida is also widely recognized as a fast-growing state for technology and innovation.
These facts, along with our active Florida-based projects with member organizations such as Johnson and Johnson, Lockheed Martin, and AmSkills, among others, convinced us that we could further our regional support and execute our mission on a significant level by opening an office in this region.”
Arnie Kravitz, ARM Institute Chief Innovation Officer added, “Over the past several years, our Institute has brought about $13M in both technology and workforce projects to the region, with funding from the Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, and the Department of Labor. Twenty percent of the ARM Institute’s consortium membership is in the region, and we expect that number to grow.”