Materials World: Spotlight Automated Sewing

Palaniswamy ‘Raj’ Rajan, CEO of SoftWear, USA, talks to Ellis Davies about the company’s Sewbots and automated worklines. 

Tell me about the company and your role at SoftWear.

SoftWear Automation is leading the disruption of the US$100 billion sewn products industry with next-generation sewing worklines for home goods, automotive mats, footwear and apparel. The Sewbots allow manufacturers to move their supply chains closer to the customer, while creating higher quality products at a lower cost. I have served as SoftWear’s Chairman for the past three years and stepped in as CEO in September 2016 with a focus on shifting the company from research mode to full production as we scale up. This has involved getting our engineering team to concentrate on achieving 90% uptime for all of our Sewbots.

How did SoftWear come to be?

In 2002, the Berry Amendment went into effect, requiring all military garments to be made in the USA. Complying with the rule proved challenging due to a lack of skilled labour available in the USA 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 SoftWear was born. Since then, we have grown our team to more than 25 engineers and developers, delivered our first products in the USA and are currently working on moving from worklines for home goods to launching our first fully automated workline solely for apparel production.

What machinery is used?

Our Sewbot worklines use a combination of patented high-speed computer vision and lightweight robotics to steer fabric to and through the needle. Using our worklines, customers are able to increase productivity while decreasing their overall defect rate. Closer proximity to the supply chain also shortens lead times and reduces competitive pricing pressure without the need for chasing cheap labour all over the globe.

What materials can be used?

Most of the fabrics we work with are the kinds of wovens you see in home textiles. Think floor mats, towels, pillows and bedding. As we move into apparel, with our t-shirt line launching in 2018, we have begun working with cotton knits. Of course, as we add to our machine capabilities we will continue to add to our list of materials.

Does automation allow for greater production?

Where we see a real increase in production is by reducing fabric-handling time, which accounts for a large portion of operator downtime during sewing operations. Combine this with our ability to run 24/7, 365 days a year, and it is easy to see how automation is able to allow for increased output.

How does automation compete in terms of quality?

Because Sewbots use our patented, high-speed vision systems and robotics, which allow them to manage repetitive tasks with greater accuracy than humans, our customers have seen a decrease in overall defect rate. The products coming off of our Sewbot worklines are higher in quality than traditionally made pieces.

How is a workline operated?

Our worklines were designed with ease of operation in mind. We knew that for the most part, the same people working in factories today would be the ones trained to manage these machines, not engineers with advanced knowledge of technology. The machines are on the same level of technical difficulty as a smartphone, and this simplicity and ease of use makes it possible for one operator to manage up to four-to-five Sewbots simultaneously.

How much human involvement is needed?

Our systems are designed to have as little human interaction with the fabric as possible. Depending on the level of pre-existing automation and the end product, we are able to automate 80-90% of the production process. As automation evolves in the sewn goods industry we foresee factories where you are able to go from a roll of fabric to a finished garment that is packed and ready to ship without human touch.

What products can be produced?

Currently, all of our customers are in home goods and automotive textiles. Their machines are producing pillows, bath and car mats and towels that can be purchased at big box retailers across the USA. Our t-shirt line, which will be launching Q4 of 2018, will be our first move into apparel products.

Why do you think automation hasn’t been widely implemented in textiles?

The fact that fabric is not rigid increases the complexity of automation many fold. Unlike the stiff metals you find in the automotive industry, fabric is lightweight, has stretch and is made to move as you move. All of these things make it tricky to automate. All past attempts at automating sewn goods production relied heavily on starches and clamps to stiffen the fabric and make it easier to manipulate. Remnants of this approach can be seen in current, operation-specific automation – focused on automating a particular process – found in factories today. These systems still require an operator to feed the machine and are not addressing some of the core issues being faced by the industry today, which can only be solved by full automation.

Are you working on any current projects of note?

We are working on fully automated worklines for mattress covers and tote bags that will be available next year in addition to our t-shirt workline.

View the article in its original format at Materials World.