A group of Georgia Tech engineering and robotics professors founded a startup called SoftWear Automation there in 2007, with the goal of overcoming the difficulties machines have in picking up flexible fabric and pinpointing where to stitch and cut. SoftWear’s first prototype took seven years to develop, sustained in part by a $1.75 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon group that pushes bleeding-edge development. In 2015 the company made the first sales of its invention, the Sewbot, to customers in the U.S. Revenue last year rose 1,000 percent, and it’s on track to do the same in 2017, according to CEO Palaniswamy “Raj” Rajan.
The breakthrough was as much about vision as touch; before SoftWear’s robots could make clothes accurately, they needed to learn to see garments as a collection of fine folds and details, rather than undifferentiated blobs of fabric. For now, the Sewbot can handle products including towels, mattress covers, and pillows, which require 10 steps or fewer to produce. But the company is at work on upgraded machines that can create T-shirts and eventually more complicated garments such as jeans and dress shirts. The ultimate goal, Rajan says, is “full automation, from a roll of material to finished product.” He says he has preliminary interest from clients in China, South Korea, Japan, and other countries across Asia.
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