IEEE Spectrum: Your Next T-Shirt Will Be Made by a Robot
Georgia Tech spin-off SoftWear Automation is developing ultrafast sewing robots that could upend the clothing industry
Sometime later this year, dozens of robots will spring into action at a new factory in Little Rock, Ark. The plant will not make cars or electronics, nor anything else that robots are already producing these days. Instead it will make T-shirts—lots of T-shirts. When fully operational, these sewing robots will churn them out at a dizzying rate of one every 22 seconds.
For decades, the automation of the sewing of garments has vexed roboticists. Conventional robots excel at manipulating rigid objects but are rather inept at handling soft, flexible materials like fabric. Early attempts to automate sewing included treating pieces of cloth with starch to temporarily make them stiff, allowing a robot to manipulate them as if they were steel sheets. This and other approaches, however, never became commercially viable, mainly because the clothing industry has resisted automation by relying on cheap labor in developing countries.
Now a Georgia Tech spin-off, SoftWear Automation, in Atlanta, claims to have built a practical sewing robot. And it doesn’t need starch. Rather, it’s based on a much higher-tech approach, one that combines machine vision and advanced manipulators. At the Arkansas factory, owned by Tianyuan Garments Co., one of China’s largest apparel manufacturers, SoftWear’s robots, called Sewbots, will equip 21 production lines, designed to make 23 million T-shirts per year for Adidas.
“Around the world, even the cheapest labor market can’t compete with us,” Tang Xinhong, chairman of Tianyuan, told China Daily last year, referring to the cost of producing each T-shirt, which he expected to be only 33 U.S. cents.
The fact that a Chinese company will use robots to make T-shirts in the United States appears to be a watershed moment for the clothing industry. Satyandra K. Gupta, director of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, says sewing robots will ultimately allow factories to produce clothing not only faster and cheaper but with greater customization. “You’ll get clothes made based on your body size and fashion tastes,” he says. “This has potential to significantly change the industry.”
Read the full article here.
(Illustration credit: MCKIBILLO)