The story of SoftWear, a sewing-automation company in Atlanta, should throw some cold water on Trump’s dreams of returning thousands of Americans to manufacturing jobs.
SoftWear started with a group of Georgia Tech professors playing around with robots and became a company because of an earlier “Buy American” push.
Since 2002, a rule known as the Berry Amendment has prohibited the Defense Department from procuring “food, clothing, fabrics, fibers, yarns, other made-up textiles, and hand or measuring tools that are not grown, reprocessed, reused, or produced in the United States.”
The DOD quickly learned why nearly all clothes are made overseas these days.
Making clothes in the US is prohibitively expensive, because workers expect to receive decent wages for their labor. So what did the military do? It invested in automation. The Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency granted Georgia Tech with $1.26 million to develop robotic sewing machines.
That result was SoftWear. And even its sewing robots, it turns out, don’t actually produce any clothes in the US.
SoftWear’s CEO, Palaniswamy Rajan, 46, moved to the US from Bangalore, India, and never looked back. He’s unapologetic about eliminating mechanical jobs like sewing, arguing that automation lets workers focus on more interesting, bigger-picture tasks — and often in better, higher-paying jobs. While the US producers rank third after China and India in textile exports, the country imports about 97% of its clothes, Rajan says.
Most young people nowadays would rather work in services than in a factory, he says, so why try to recreate a world that is long gone and wasn’t all that great to begin with? “It’s an idealization of the past, as if the past were always so rosy,” he said.
“Do we really want phone operators plugging in your phone connection, people having hard physical labor jobs in factories,” he said, that are physically straining and often unhealthy?