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01.24.2018

AlleyWatch: Sewing A Mechanical Future

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AlleyWatch: Sewing A Mechanical Future

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One company mentioned by Lo was Georgia Tech spinout, Softwear Automation. Softwear made news last summer by announcing its contract with an Arkansas apparel factory to update 21 production lines with its Sewbot automated sewing machines. The factory is owned by Chinese manufacturer Tianyuan Garments, which produces over 20 million T-shirts a year for Adidas. The Chairman of Tianyuan, Tang Xinhong, boasted about his new investment, saying “Around the world, even the cheapest labor market can’t compete with us,” when Sewbot brings down the costs to $0.33 a shirt.

The challenge for automating cut & sew operations to date has been the handling of textiles which come in a seemingly infinite number of varieties that stretch, skew, flop and move with great fluidity. To solve this problem, Softwear uses computer vision to track each individual thread. According to its issued patents, Softwear developed a specialized camera which captures  threads at 1,000 frames per second and tracks their movements using proprietary algorithms. Softwear embedded this camera around robot end effectors that manipulate the fabrics similar to human fingers. According to a description in the IEEE these “micromanipulators, powered by precise linear actuators, can guide a piece of cloth through a sewing machine with submillimeter precision, correcting for distortions of the material.” To further ensure the highest level of quality, Sewbot uses a four-axis robotic arm with a vacuum gripper that picks and places the textiles on a sewing table with a 360-degree conveyor system and spherical rollers to quickly move the fabric panels around.

Softwear’s CEO, Palaniswamy “Raj” Rajan, explained, “Our vision is that we should be able to manufacture clothing anywhere in the world and not rely on cheap labor and outsourcing.” Rajan appears to be working hard towards that goal, professing that his robots are already capable of reproducing more than 2 million products sold at Target and Walmart. According to IEEE Spectrum, Rajan further asserted in a press release that the end of 2017 Sewbot will be on track to produce “30 million pieces a year.” It is unclear if that objective was ever met. Softwear did announce the closing of its $7.5 million financing round by CTW Venture Partners, a firm of which Rajan is also the managing partner.

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