Yes, you read that correctly! Robots are now taking on the task of sewing blue jeans.
Clothing and technology companies, such as Siemens AG and Levi Strauss & Co., are working together to explore the potential of this new technology. Eugen Solowjow, who manages a project at a Siemens laboratory in San Francisco stated that they have been working on automating apparel manufacturing since 2018. He also said-
“Clothing is the last trillion-dollar industry that hasn’t been automated.”
The idea of using robots to manufacture products domestically instead of relying on factories overseas gained popularity during the pandemic as supply chains were disrupted and highlighted the risks of distant manufacturing.
A great way to bring clothing manufacturing jobs back to the Western world, including the United States, is by mechanizing processes that are currently done by hand in countries like China and Bangladesh. A Levi’s representative who asked not to be named said the company was involved in the initial stages of development but refused to give more information.
However, this solution is not without its Critics. The topic of automation usually worries apparel makers, as it suggests that workers in developing countries will lose their jobs. Jonathan Zornow, who devised a method to automate specific components of jeans factories, said he received online backlash – and one death threat.
In addition, automating the process of sewing presents a unique challenge.
While car bumpers and plastic bottles maintain their shape when handled by robots, the cloth is much more delicate. Human touch is required to manage its endless array of thicknesses and textures effectively.
The researchers interviewed by Reuters said that it will take years for robots to develop the same level of finesse as human hands. While robots are gradually improving, they still lag behind humans in delicate tasks such as handling the fabric.
The goal of the current research is to see if machines can help close the cost gap between US factories and those in foreign countries that have lower production costs.
Solowjow said that the idea to create software that could guide robots in their work at Siemens developed out of a need to be able to handle all types of flexible materials, such as thin wire cables. He added that they soon realized one of the most promising applications for this technology was in the clothing industry.
Independent data platform Statista estimates that the global apparel market is worth $1.52 trillion.
In order to help out struggling old-line manufacturers, Siemens partnered with the Department of Defense funded Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute located in Pittsburgh.
A San Francisco startup caught their attention with a potential solution to the floppy fabric issue.
The startup, Sewbo Inc., has found a more effective way to mass-produce clothes by teaching robots how to handle cloth. By stiffening the fabric with chemicals, it can be handled more like a car bumper during production. The garment is then washed to remove the stiffening agent.
Zornow, Sewbo’s inventor said in a statement-
“Pretty much every piece of denim is washed after it’s made anyway, so this fits into the existing production system.”
The research team eventually expanded to several clothing companies, which received $1.5 million in grants from the Pittsburgh robotics institute to experiment with the technique. These companies included Levi’s and Bluewater Defense LLC, a small U.S.-based maker of military uniforms.
Other companies are attempting to automate the process of sewing in factories. One example is Software Automation Inc, a startup located in Georgia that has created a machine that sews T-shirts by positioning the fabric over a table that’s equipped with special tools.
Though Eric Spackey, CEO of Bluewater Defense, was part of the research effort with Siemens, he is skeptical of the Sewbo approach.
If we add stiffening material into the garment, it just increases the costs by adding another process, said Spackey in a statement. Although, he does concede that for producers who wash garments as part of their regular operation–such as jeans makers–it could make sense.
The first step is to get robots into clothing factories.
After extensively researching the available options, Sanjeev Bahl decided to purchase a Sewbo machine for his jeans factory in downtown Los Angeles. He led the way through his factory in September, pointing out workers hunched over old-style machines. Many of these tasks, he said, are ripe for automation.
He also said-
“If it works, I think there’s no reason not to have large-scale (jeans) manufacturing here in the U.S. again.”
The research team is currently testing the robotic technology in a production environment. If successful, it could be the first step towards bringing automated clothing production back to the U.S., while still keeping costs low. Only time will tell if robots can truly take on this daunting task.
For now, the future of automated clothing production is uncertain. But the research team remains hopeful that robotics can help keep production costs low while bringing clothing production back to the U.S.
Only time will tell if robots really can take on this task and make a difference in the apparel industry.
Shivendra Tiwari is an Engineer and an MBA in Marketing. He is the Content head at Marketing91 and a thorough Online Marketing enthusiast. Shivendra loves to follow different brands and study their Business and Marketing tactics.