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Robot Garment Assembly Set to Level Production Cost Playing Field

A US computerised sewing system can convert fabric to garments without human intervention, slashing labour costs.

Photo: Robo-crop: Automated cutting, stitching and fabric handling.
Robo-crop: Automated cutting, stitching and fabric handling.
Photo: Robo-crop: Automated cutting, stitching and fabric handling.
Robo-crop: Automated cutting, stitching and fabric handling.

Fully automated sewing – a process where all human intervention is excluded – has long been seen as a game changer in the garment industry. At one sweep, the disparity in salaries between the developed world and the emerging economies would be removed from the product cost equation, a significant figure given the typically labour-intensive nature of the industry.

While a degree of automation has already been introduced for some processes – fabric cutting as well as sewing pockets and buttons – it was thought virtually impossible to create a machine capable of converting fabric directly into garments. Typically, the process of correctly stitching materials together, while maintaining even and correctly tensed stitching, has eluded even the most sophisticated software and the most intricate precision engineering.

Now, an American company – Atlanta-based Software Automation – is claiming to have conquered all of these problems, with its first robotic sewing machine scheduled for delivery by the end of the year. The company’s system uses high-speed photography to allow its in-built computer to pick out individual threads in the fabric. This allows it to automatically determine the ideal stitching position and the optimum material alignment.

The system also comes with LOWRY, an automated materials handling system. This can pick up and align the required fabrics using a vacuum grip. This means, for the first time, the 20 or so different material cuts required to make one pair of jeans can all be assembled and stitched automatically, without the need for a human operator.

The system has already excited many in the US where it has been seen as a boon to the Made in the USA movement, an industry group keen to restore the domestic manufacturing sector. It has also already been warmly welcomed by a number of fast fashion brands, including Zara. If cost-competitive, the system would allow rapid delivery of in-trend garments from domestic manufacturers, without the need for complex and costly shipping and logistics requirements.

Although manufacturers in the developed world are welcoming this new technology as a way of creating a level playing field with garment producers in Southeast Asia, where labour costs are far lower, it could prove but a temporary respite for US and EU companies. One of the first orders for the system, apparently, has come from Bangladesh.

Curtis Louie, New York Office

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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