New Tech Research / Rachel Adkins

Fully Automated Garment Production

For the most part, the garment industry is already heavily dependent on robotics and automation for many individual aspects of production. Common in the industry are automated systems for picking cotton, industrially spun yarn, and lasers that than can quickly cut fabrics in bulk. Even recently, we have seen specialist machines capable of sewing pockets and attaching buttons. But even with all of these developments, as well as developments constantly arising from the outside, the brunt of clothing production still relies mainly on human hands. That is, until very recently.

One of the biggest hurdles has always been the flexible nature of fabrics, which robots are simply unequipped to handle and lack proper means of on the spot thinking for readjustment if the materials were to slip during assembly. However, in September of 2016, Jonathan Zarnow, researcher and sole founder of SEWBO, a Seattle-based startup, made a major breakthrough in combating the materials issue. His method involves coating fabrics in a water-soluble concoction of melted thermoplastics, which temporarily stiffen the fabric so it can be easily handled by a robotic arm. Once the garment is fully constructed, the coating can simply be rinsed off in hot water. The robotic arm initially used in prototyping was a collaborative Universal Robot, a commercial model (which you can own today for the low price of $35k!) that is designed to “work safely alongside humans,” however, Zarnow claims that any robot can be programmed to perform this kind of function.

Another big development comes from SoftWear automation, in the form of LOWRY, a fully automated assembly line, which can successfully construct t-shirts. It claims to be able to produce 1,142 shirts in an 8-hour period, as opposed to 700 that can be made in that time by a ten person sewing line. Currently, the LOWRY system is only being sold in the United States, because the SoftWear team wants to encourage increased American garment production by providing a cost effective means of doing so; virtually all commercial American fashion is outsourced overseas in one form or another, almost always due to human labor costs. Unfortunately, I’m unable to find much about the technological means that actually make these automated garment lines work, but I suppose that is to be expected of most emerging tech.

SOFTWEAR: FULL AUTOMATION FOR SEWN GOODS

The most glaring issue that I foresee, as well as anyone with an understanding of automation, is the inevitable job loss these kinds of machines will cause. According to a report by the International Labor Organization, “Nearly 90% of garment and footwear workers in Cambodia and Vietnam are at risk of losing their jobs to automated assembly lines,” the overwhelming majority of which are women, with little means of employment elsewhere. Though, from a different vantage point, there’s also the ideal that implementing these machines will decrease stress and labor tolls put on garment workers, and possibly prevent future tragic incidents such as the Savar building collapse; in this utopia, automation could be used alongside human workers to make their jobs easier, rather than simply replacing them altogether.