SoftWear Automation, a division of Georgia Tech, is developing ultra-high-speed sewing robots that could disrupt the entire apparel industry.
It is expected that dozens of robots will be put into use in a new factory in Little Rock, Arkansas, later this year. This factory does not produce cars and electronics, nor does it produce other products that robots are already familiar with. Instead, it produces T-shirts – a lot of T-shirts. When these sewing robots are fully operational, they can be produced at an amazing speed of every 22 seconds.
For decades, automating the apparel and textile industry has been a problem that has plagued robotics experts. Traditional robots are good at handling rigid objects, but they are quite clumsy when dealing with soft materials like cloth.
In the early days, when people tried to achieve automatic sewing, the cloth was sizing and temporarily hardened so that the robot could operate them like a steel plate. However, although a variety of methods have been tried, it is not commercially viable, mainly because the apparel industry relies on cheap labor in developing countries, which has led to its resistance to automation.
Now Georgia Tech's subsidiary, SoftWear Automation in Atlanta, claims that they have created a practical sewing robot. The robot uses a high-tech method that combines machine vision with advanced robots and does not require sizing of the fabric during use. A factory in Arkansas, one of China's largest garment manufacturers, Tianyuan Clothing Co., Ltd., will assemble SoftWear's robot Sewbots on its 21 production lines and plans to produce 23 million T-shirts per year for Adidas.
Tian Xinhong, chairman of Tianyuan, said in an interview with China Daily last year that he expected the cost of producing each T-shirt to be only 33 cents. He said, “In the world, even the cheapest labor market cannot compete with us. ".
The fact that Chinese companies will use robots to produce T-shirts in the United States seems to be a watershed in the apparel industry. Satyhand K. Gupta, director of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing at the University of Southern California, said that sewing robots will eventually make the factory produce clothing that is faster, cheaper, and more customized. He said: "What you get is clothes made according to your body and fashion taste. This will fundamentally change the clothing industry."
Today, if you walk into a garment factory, you will find that workers are involved in almost every job of making clothes. What happens when the robot takes over their work? Some observers have warned that millions of people may lose their jobs, while others believe that in the long run, automation will disperse manufacturing and create new, better jobs in more places.
SoftWear's Chairman and CEO Palaniswamy "Raj" Rajan said, "Our vision is to be able to produce clothing anywhere in the world, rather than relying on cheap labor and outsourcing." SoftWear has raised $7.5 million from venture capital firm CTW Venture Partners. He said that when manufacturers are closer to their customers, they can design and deliver new products faster and reduce transportation and inventory costs.
However, these changes will not happen overnight. Although SoftWear and other companies showcase automated sewing techniques, the problems they face are still challenging. The weight and texture of textiles vary, and it is tricky for robots to handle so many types of things. David Bourne, chief scientist at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, who focuses on building automated intelligent systems for manufacturing, said: "The role of humans remains critical, such as operating textiles or installing sewing machines. However, The material handling part of the entire production process is disappearing."
Figure | SoftWear Automation's sewing robot The “top” uses a high-resolution camera “bottom” to monitor the deformation of the textile to track the movement of a single thin line.
SoftWear's approach to solving material problems is quite clever (the company has three invention patents and multiple patent applications). Since the stretching and deformation of textiles made the problem tricky, the company decided to track a single thread in the fabric instead of trying to control a piece of textile by tracking its overall size. To this end, the company has developed a dedicated camera capable of capturing more than 1000 frames per second, and a set of image processing algorithms to detect the position of the thread on each frame.
At the same time, the company created a robotic manipulator by mimicking the way the sewing machine operator handled the textile with his fingers. These micromanipulators, driven by precision linear actuators, can guide a piece of fabric with sub-millimeter precision through a sewing machine to correct the deformation of the raw material.
In addition, SoftWear has introduced two other systems for moving textile panels: a four-axis robotic arm with a vacuum clamp that holds the textile on the sewing table, and a 360° conveyor system. Use a spherical roller embedded in the table to slide and rotate the panel at high speed.
The company's existing Sewbots robots can make bath towels, pillowcases, towels and most other flat, round or square products. CEO Rajan said that there are currently 2 million of these products sold at Target, Wal-Mart and other major retailers. And before the end of the year, "our robots will produce 30 million products a year."
SoftWear is now improving the sewing robots at the Tianyuan plant. Producing T-shirts is much more complicated than producing carpets because T-shirts require multiple uneven seams and hem. If everything goes as planned, the Sewbot robot will be able to perform the same amount of tasks as 10 workers (for example, sewing sleeves or labeling on a traditional production line), while the robot takes about half the time.
After the production of T-shirts, SoftWear hopes to focus on the production of jeans, shirts and uniforms, which are harder to do. Will the robot finally sew every piece of clothing we wear? “No,” Rajan said. “Like high fashion, things like bridal gowns are still done by people.” So now it seems that the arrival of "robot fashion" will take time.