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The changing face of garment production

The creation of an automated sewing robot could signal a major sea change in clothing manufacturing

Last month, Seattle-based company, Sewbo Inc, announced that its industrial robot has successfully sewn together a T-shirt – the first time that a robot has been used to sew an entire article of clothing.

Unlike many other labour-intensive industries, clothing manufacturing has thus far avoided large scale automation. But in light of Sewbo’s announcement, this could soon be set to change.

A Different Approach

Until now, one of the main problems with automated sewing machines has been their inability to handle limp, flexible fabrics. The Sewbo robot gets around this problem by using a liquid version of a thermoplastic chemical used in 3D printing that temporarily stiffens the fabric. This enables the robotic arm to pick up pieces of material and feed them into an industrial sewing machine. Once the item is complete, the robot drops it in water, which removes the chemical and makes the garment soft and pliable once more.

Inventor, Jonathan Zornow claims that this new technology “will allow manufacturers to create higher-quality clothing at lower costs in less time than ever before”. It can also be paired with robots which cut and fold material, providing the clothing industry with an effective, end-to-end automation solution.

An Ethical Alternative?

One of the advantages of large scale automation is that brands will be able to produce ‘fast fashion’ without the ethical concerns that currently plague the fashion industry.

The garment industry is notorious for using sweatshops in the developing world. Despite a growing commitment to ethical supply chains, we still frequently hear reports of garment workers who are badly paid and who work in poor or downright dangerous conditions, and these kinds of reports can be highly damaging to a brand.

Sewbo offers businesses an attractive alternative, enabling users to design and start mass producing a new product in just a day – something that is not possible with a human workforce. Sewbo assembly lines can also be set up in the countries where companies are planning to sell the clothes – thus cutting the environmental impact of a global supply chain.

However, there is also a significant downside to this. Millions of people throughout the world rely on garment manufacturing jobs. If a robot can suddenly do the work more effectively and for less money, these jobs will be in jeopardy, which will have serious consequences for garment workers and their families.

Added to this is the risk that as processes become ever more automated, the skill of sewing could become somewhat of a lost art.

Early Days

The Sewbo robot is currently in its infancy so it’s difficult to predict with any certainty what the long-term effect on the sewing industry is likely to be. Jonathan Zornow is currently looking to partner with fashion brands who are interested in automation, so that he can trial the product and iron out any glitches – so it may be a while before fully automated production lines become the norm in clothing factories.

Looking further ahead, it seems unlikely that these developments will kill off sewing altogether, but we are sure to see some significant and widespread changes in the global garment industry.