Apparel Views: Sewbots Filling Automation Gap

Making clothes has always been a labour-intensive activity. The industrial revolution mechanised and automated textile production in the 18th century, whilst the invention of the sewing machine in the following century moved the bottleneck to the cutting room. Computer controlled cutting machines solved this problem, however, the task of assembling the garment is still mainly left to the manual labour.

An Atlanta, US, based brand SoftWear Automation, launched in 2012, aims to change this by creating autonomous ‘sewn good’ worklines for home goods, footwear and automotive sectors. With its patented Sewbots fully automated technology, the company aims to geographically shorten the distance between manufacturer and consumer by utilising benefits of disruptive technologies.

In 2002, the Berry Amendment went into effect restricting the military from procuring clothing that was not made in the USA. Complying with the rule proved challenging due to a lack of skilled labour available in the US that only got worse as the current generation of seamstresses retired with no new talent to take their places. It was under these circumstances that the initial idea for Soft Wear was born and the company was launched in 2012,” explained Chairman and CEO Palaniswamy Rajan.

“Since then, we have grown our team to 25 engineers and developers, delivered our first products in the US and are currently working on moving from worklines for home goods to launching our first fully automated workline solely for apparel production.” The company initially received $1.75 mn grant from the defence department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to produce a prototype of its automatic sewing machine in 2012. After that, SoftWear received a $2 mn grant from the Walmart Foundation/Georgia Tech and a $3 mn Series A from CTW Venture Partners in 2014. SoftWear recently closed a $4.5 mn Series A1, ultimately rising just over $10 mn in the past five years.

The company’s Sewbots use a combination of patented high-speed computer vision and lightweight robotics to steer fabric to and through the needle with greater speed and accuracy than a human. Using Sewbot worklines customers are expected to be able to increase productivity while decreasing their overall defect rate. “They are also able to move their sewing closer to the end consumer or materials supply chain shortening lead times and reducing competitive pricing pressure without the need for chasing cheap labour all over the globe,” said Rajan. “Most current automation in textiles and apparel is single operation specific — focused on automating a particular process— and still requires an operator to feed and manage the machine. Right now, we are seeing a strong desire to shift from this process focused automation to full automation, going from fabric roll to finished good with minimal human interaction. This shift will drastically transform how and where we manufacture giving brands and manufacturers to move closer to their customers or their materials supply chain.”

Currently, the company is developing a fully automated workline for T-shirts. “This line will go from cut piece to finished T-shirt without human intervention — save the machine operator managing our workline of course. When launched in the fourth quarter of 2018, this line will be capable of running 24/7/365 with a projected output of over 1 mn shirts per year,” explained Rajan.

Read more at Apparel Views.