In late 2016, the garment manufacturing business was abuzz with a new development. Inventor Jonathan Zornow launched Sewbo, a sewing robot prototype and what is now being seen as a likely game changer in garment manufacturing.
Sewbo, claims Zornow, is the very first robot to have sewn a complete garment. In 30 minutes, it was able to make a shirt, all on its own. This development was met with so much excitement as it is the first time since 1842, when the sewing machine was invented, that technology is poised to once again revolutionize the textile sector. While garment manufacturing already includes automation in its processes, Fast Company reports that it is still heavily dependent on manual labor. Rising costs has also forced companies to set up what are called sweatshops (a pejorative term usually referring to garment factories with poor working conditions) in countries with cheap labor.
Howie Choset, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon, said in an interview that it is hard to automate the garment industry because robots are bad at handling soft, flexible fabric. As a result, while fabric cutting was already automated, manual labor is still required to put fabric into sewing machines. Zornow was able to introduce a work around on this issue.
CNN reports that Zornow’s solution was to make the fabric rigid to enable a robot to handle it. He used a water-soluble polymer called polyvinyl alcohol, which when rinsed in warm water at the end of the process, removes the stiffness and makes the fabric wearable. According to Zornow, this polymer is already being used in automated textile manufacturing to stiffen yarn. As per published reports, the polyvinyl alcohol is non-toxic and can even be recovered and reused through the evaporation process.
Zornow’s automated sewing process is composed of four important steps, as reported by CNN:
1) cloth panels are cut by a machine;
2) said panels are applied with polymer to make it rigid;
3) the robot positions the stiffened panels at the sewing machine;
4) the robot lifts the garment from the sewing machine.
Zornow’s automated sewing system has attracted too much interest. In a report by Fast Company, Whitney Cathcart, the founder of digital innovation firm Cathcart, described Sewbo as exciting.
She says: What he’s [Zornow] creating is completely disruptive. She adds that this technology has the potential to bring back jobs to the U.S. and other Western countries which had to outsource manufacturing due to labor costs.
Purchasing manager at garment manufacturer Delta Galil Industries Atnyel Guedj has also reportedly welcomed the innovation. According to him, Sewbo is a step in the right direction. He noted that [automation] is the only way forward, and maybe the only way for the industry to save itself from itself.
Meanwhile, Zornow’s prototype is not the only innovation in garment manufacturing. Through the years, several start-ups have been creating ripples in technological modernization. Fastco Design reported Kniterate’s goal of knitting together ready-to-wear garments, with no sewing involved. Fabrican has been working on a spray on fabric which required the direct application of chemicals on a body to create a garment. Software Automation is using computer-enabled cameras to automate stitching by tracking the location of fabric and determining its stitching position. All of these and other upcoming inventions are expected to make a significant impact on the industry.
Impact on jobs and the environment
The usual debate that follows after the emergence of a new innovation is its impact on jobs and the environment. With Sewbo and other garment manufacturing technologies, the concern is similar even if this particular debate on robotics and automation has actually been going on for some time.
In terms of the environment, it looks like robotics will have zero to minimal impact. In fact, it can be argued that automation will even improve the sector’s environmental footprint as it will ensure efficiency in its processes. At the same time, Sewbo’s process, for example, uses a polymer that is recyclable or re-usable. Automation may also remove the need for mass production, thereby reducing the number of clothing that eventually ends up in landfills.
However, the biggest concern in the rise of robots, automation and artificial intelligence is the loss of jobs. According to 2014 data, the entire garment industry employs 60 to 75 million people worldwide. In a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) quoted by The Guardian, it is said that automated assembly lines will most likely cost the jobs of 90 percent of garment and footwear workers in Cambodia and Vietnam and other ASEAN countries where the so-called sweatshops are located. The thing is, these workers are already victims of long hours, low wages and hard, backbreaking work. Yet, they will be the first casualties with the use of robots in garment manufacturing.
Unfortunately, automation in garment manufacturing is not anymore a possibility. It is a fact and it will happen soon enough, as demonstrated by Sewbo and other new technologies. In fact, Adidas has just recently announced that it will start a Speedfactory, using robots for its production lines. It is envisioned that its first Speedfactory will only employ 160 people and will reportedly reduce the production of a pair of shoes, from idea to shelf, from the current 18 months to only about 5 hours.
According to The Guardian, Jae-Hee Chang, the ILO co-author, notes that the best way for ASEAN countries which will be hardest hit by the rise of robots and automation to cope is to change their current export-oriented model and try to supply ASEAN’s growing middle classes. Another way would be by venturing into the production of higher-value apparel. For Nick Srnicek, co-author of Inventing the Future Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, automation can be a good thing as it will enable the redistribution of work in a more equitable manner.
At this point, the important thing is for companies and governments to have a plan in place to ensure the welfare of workers and their families who will be hardest hit by the rise in automation.
What kind of plans do you think should be put in place? Let’s start a discussion.