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01.15.2018

Counselor Magazine: The Sewbots Are Here

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Counselor Magazine: The Sewbots Are Here

Robots capable of sewing finished garments could turn the current apparel manufacturing model on its head.

In a once-shuttered factory in Little Rock, AK, a potential robot revolution in the apparel industry is poised to launch. If things go as some artificial intelligence proponents envision, the robot-driven activities in the factory could one day be looked back on as early sparks that helped ignite a transformation in apparel manufacturing, supply chains and speed of delivery. That all could have significant implications for the promotional products industry, where apparel accounts for 39% of annual industry sales, according to SOI data.

Scheduled to be operational by the end of 2018, the plant is slated to feature fully automated T-shirt production lines powered by robots that have been given the headline-friendly name of Sewbots by their creators, Atlanta, GA-based SoftWear Automation.

While aspects of the apparel manufacturing process have already been automated, the Sewbots represent a possible game-changing leap forward. Despite computer-controlled fabric cutting equipment and other automated advancements, human hands have always been needed to work with machines to stitch and sew final garments. The reason? Cloth is floppy and moves unpredictably, making it difficult for robots, as so far developed, to work with the material and create finished apparel.

But now, using advanced machine vision, cutting-edge computing and robotic sewing, the Sewbots will be able to handle soft fabrics and actually “make” T-shirts, says SoftWear Automation CEO Palaniswamy Rajan. Indeed, China-based Tianyuan Garments Company, which owns the Arkansas plant, aims to produce massive volumes of tees for Adidas with the Sewbots.

“From fabric cutting and sewing to finished product, it takes roughly four minutes,” Tang Xinhong, chairman of Tianyuan Garments, recently told China Daily. “We will install 21 production lines. When fully operational, the system will make one T-shirt every 22 seconds.” Labor costs, Tang says, will be about 33 cents per shirt. “Around the world, even the cheapest labor market can’t compete with us,” he says, noting the plant’s operations will ultimately generate 400 new jobs in Arkansas.

Should Tianyuan and SoftWear Automation get it right, the ripple effect such a model could have on the apparel industry – and domestic manufacturing – is potentially far-reaching. Other AI innovators are laboring to invent robotic solutions that similarly aim to stir a seachange in the $3 trillion global apparel market. Here, Counselor explores the sci-fi-seeming evolution and examines what it could mean for the promo industry if robots start taking charge of garment sewing.

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While the autonomous work lines for apparel are set to debut this year, SoftWear Automation went to market in 2015 with robots that create a range of home goods, from bath mats and bath towels, to cushions and pillowcases. “Picture walking into a hotel room, and essentially anything that needs to be sewn in there, we can do,” says Rajan, noting his company sells its machines to production clients and does not make goods itself.

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