Image credit: SoftWear Automation
Robots have infiltrated manufacturing processes in multiple industries, but one holdout has been textiles. Fabric is flexible and often stretchy, making it difficult to sew robotically. Without the careful eye of a seamstress or tailor, the cloth can pull, seams can pucker, and the resulting garment can look wonky.
The Sewbot aims to change that—and the fast fashion industry—using 3D technologies, computer vision, and robotics. Developed by SoftWear Automation, the fully automated Sewbot can cut fabric from a roll and sew it into garments, enabling on-demand manufacturing.
A Stitch in No Time
The Sewbot sewing arm sits on a 70-foot-long table embedded with individual roller balls that move fabric. A multi-axis pick-and-place machine with a vacuum-gripper arm lifts fabric and places it on the table. Using machine vision to monitor and analyze the fabric, it automatically adjusts for folds, buckles, and other distortions in the fabric.
Guided by a multitude of cameras with computer vision, the Sewbot cuts fabric, sews seams, adds sleeves, hems edges, and performs quality inspections. Machine vision enables needle placement within a half millimeter. The cameras can capture 1,000 frames per second, and the image-processing software detects the threads within each frame. That enables the Sewbot to sew a perfect circle, where the last stitch ends in the first hole.
Image credit: SoftWear Automation
The Future of Fast Fashion
The Sewbot has sewn towels, linens, and even shoes, but the company is largely focused on constructing T-shirts, which are typically imported due to labor costs.
“We buy 3.5 billion t-shirts a year in this country, and 98 percent of it is imported,” Palaniswamy Rajan, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based SoftWear Automation has said.
The Sewbot can produce one shirt for about 33 cents, making it cost-competitive with shirts imported from low-wage countries, which ring in at about 22 cents each. In the US, labor costs bring the price per shirt to nearly $7.50. The Sewbots are more efficient than a human sewing line, which produces 669 T-shirts in one eight-hour shift. The robotic workline is about 70 percent faster, cranking out about 1,142 T-shirts in eight hours, about 25 seconds per shirt.
Made In the U.S.A.
Sewbot is poised to bring clothing manufacturing back to the US. In fact, the Department of Defense’s technology innovation unit, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was an early investor in SoftWear Automation because clothing for the US military must be made in the US.
Chinese manufacturer Tian Yuan Garments Company, which makes clothes for Adidas and Armani, has partnered with SoftWear Automation to use the Sewbots in its Arkansas facility. Each of the 21 robotic production lines is managed by three to five people, rather than the 10 people typically required to work on a conventional line. That cut labor costs by 50-70 percent.
Local Production, High Customization
Despite its efficiency, SoftWear Automation is focused on zero-inventory initiatives, and its core customer base is small brands and online merchants. Clothing is produced on-demand within 24 to 48 hours, making it attractive to online retailers and small shops that can’t afford large runs or store excess stock. Retailers can test new designs and react to fashion trends quickly with minimal risk.
The Sewbot offers the added benefit of sustainability. Shifting the supply chain closer to the customer reduces fulfillment time and the manufacturer’s carbon footprint. On-demand manufacturing reduces waste in an industry plagued by oversupply. Clothing is one of the largest categories of items discarded in landfills. With on-demand manufacturing and smaller production runs, retailers don’t have to place orders until the consumer makes a purchase.
Learn more at SoftWear Automation.