Automation is less of a threat to workers in the emerging world than it is made out to be
BANGLADESH EXPORTS 60% more ready-made garments than India, a country with over eight times its population. On the busy roads of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, white vans nose through the traffic on “Emergency Export Duty”, according to the ambulance-like letters painted on their sides. The success of this quintessentially labour-intensive industry helped make Bangladesh a lower-middle-income country in 2014, according to the World Bank’s classifications.
But some think that Bangladesh’s garment industry now faces a new problem almost as grave as the traffic: the threat of automation. Robots are already common in other kinds of manufacturing, but still rare in clothes-making. Of the 1.63m industrial robots in operation worldwide in 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available), only 1,580 were in textiles, apparel and leather, says the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).
Robots find garment-making so hard because its basic materials are so soft. When fabric is picked up or put down, it loses its form, creasing, crumpling, folding and draping in unpredictable formations. That can make it hard for a robot to keep track of what it is handling and where to apply itself. It might be “easier to automate the activities of a fashion designer than to automate the people who sew clothing”, suggests Michael Chui of the McKinsey Global Institute.
Bots for basics
SoftWear Automation itself is surprisingly measured in its claims for its technology. “There’s the perception that robots will take over and automate everything,” says Mr Rajan, the firm’s boss; but he believes the sewbots will remain in the minority even 20-30 years into the future. “I expect we’ll probably automate about 20-25% of the apparel industry,” he predicts. Robots will take care of “the high-volume basics”. But “the higher fashion, lower batch sizes are always going to be done by people.”
SoftWear Automation occasionally receives calls from Bangladeshi garment-makers, but the company serves only the American market. “If you are looking to deploy our technology because you think you can save labour costs, then it’s the wrong reason to do it,” says Mr Rajan. Instead, his company aims to minimise transport costs, reduce environmental strains and relieve acute American labour shortages. One of their principal customers supplies America’s armed forces, whose uniforms are required by law to be made within the country. This anachronistic legislation is supposed to preserve America’s industrial capacity to make the things its army needs, but “the average age of seamstresses in America is 56,” Mr Rajan points out.
For the foreseeable future, then, the Sewbot is not a threat to the abundant labour in countries like Bangladesh. Its existence owes a lot to some cutting-edge innovation and more than a little to some long-standing American protectionism. Unfortunately, more examples of such protectionism are on the way.
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