Robot will finally automate sewing in the garment industry

A new robot by Sewbo could automate the feeding of fabric into sewing machines. Zornow has created a process by which a robotic arm guides chemically stiffened pieces of fabric through a commercial sewing machine.

Sewbo has used an industrial robot to sew together a T-shirt, achieving the long-sought goal of automation for garment production. Sewbo’s technology will allow manufacturers to create higher-quality clothing at lower costs. It will shorten supply chains and lessen the long lead times that hamper the fashion and apparel industries, helping to reduce the complexity of today’s intricate global supply network.

Despite widespread use in other industries, automation has made little progress in clothing manufacturing due to the difficulties robots face when trying to manipulate limp, flexible fabrics.

Sewbo avoids these hurdles by temporarily stiffening fabrics, allowing off-the-shelf industrial robots to easily build garments from rigid cloth, just as if they were working with sheet metal. The fabric panels can be easily molded and welded before being permanently sewn together.

The water-soluble stiffener is removed at the end of the manufacturing process with a simple rinse in hot water, leaving a soft, fully assembled piece of clothing. The stiffener can then be recovered for reuse.

Machines already play a large part in clothing manufacturing. Fabrics can be woven by machines, and then cut into pieces by computer-controlled cutting machines. There are also a few small items like dress shirt collars and cuffs that can be machine-sewn, according to North Carolina State University textiles and apparel researcher Cynthia Istook. But humans still have to put all of the pieces of fabric together, guide them through a sewing machine, and then pass them onto the next assembly line station.

Robot Sewing Demonstration from Sewbo, Inc. from Jon Zornow on Vimeo.

The process requires an off-the-shelf sewing machine and a robotic arm, which is built by Universal Robots and costs about $35,000. The UR5 can be trained to continuously repeat a task; just move the arm to teach it a new sequence of moves. Zornow demonstrated the system by sewing a T-shirt, but it could be retrained to work with other patterns.

Apparel companies often move their manufacturing to countries where wages are lower in a perpetual quest to cut costs. The Center for American Progress found that in 2011, 15 of the top apparel exporters to the U.S. paid their Chinese garment workers an average monthly real wage of $324.90. Bangladeshi workers earned just $91.45. Meanwhile, U.S. sewing machine operators earn an average monthly wage of $1,922, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

SOURCES- Technology Review, Sewbo, Vimeo