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The Economist “Sewing clothes still needs human hands. But for how much longer?”


The Economist “Sewing clothes still needs human hands. But for how much longer?”

IN 1970 William J. Bank, president of the Blue Jeans Corporation, predicted that there would be a man on Mars before the production of apparel was automated. Almost half a century later, he has not yet been proved wrong. Viewed through the lens of history, this is astonishing. Spinning was one of the first processes to succumb to industrialisation. Weaving followed shortly afterwards. Cutting the resultant cloth into pieces from which an item is then assembled is easy now that patterns can be reduced to software. But, though effective sewing machines have been around since the 1840s, their activities still have to be guided by hand. The idea of putting a bolt of fabric into one end of an automated production line and getting completed garments out of the other thus remains as impossible as it was in Bank’s day. Two American companies, however, think that they have cracked the problem, and that a system which can turn cloth into clothing without the need for tailors is just around the corner.

One of these aspiring firms, SoftWear Automation in Atlanta, Georgia, already makes machines, Sewbots, that can turn out towels, pillows, rugs, mats and other such essentially rectangular goods. SoftWear’s boss, Palaniswamy Rajan, thinks Sewbots are almost ready to take the plunge with actual garments—in particular, with T-shirts. The other aspirant, Sewbo, which is based in Seattle, has made a T-shirt already, as a proof of principle, though it does not yet have a commercial production system.

The problem both firms are trying to overcome is that cloth is floppy and behaves unpredictably when pushed around. It is thus hard to align two pieces of it in a way that allows them to be sewn together accurately. The putative solutions the firms have come up with are, though, completely different from one another. SoftWear Automation’s approach has been to improve its sewing robots’ ability to handle cloth—in essence, to make those robots more like human tailors. Sewbo’s has been to make cloth itself easier for robots to handle.

Read more at The Economist

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