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Intelligent Machines

A Robot That Sews Could Take the Sweat Out of Sweatshops

A big part of the garment-making process is still done by hand. Now some clothing makers hope to end that.

Take a look at the tag on your shirt. If you are in the U.S., chances are it was made in a country like China or Thailand and then shipped overseas.

Jonathan Zornow, the sole employee of a new startup called Sewbo, thinks the U.S. could bring garment manufacturing a little closer to home by automating the feeding of fabric into sewing machines—a step that to this day is done by hand. Zornow has created a process by which a robotic arm guides chemically stiffened pieces of fabric through a commercial sewing machine.

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.

Before building Sewbo, Zornow was a Web developer interested in taking on a more mechanical project. He learned about a water-soluble thermoplastic used to support 3-D-printed objects as they are printed, which has also been used in the textiles industry. Zornow realized that by drenching fabric in a liquid version of the polymer, he could make stiff panels of fabric that can be picked up by a robot. You can also use an ultrasonic welder to melt pieces of fabric together before sewing them in place. Dunking the completed garment in water removes the polymer.

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.

Zornow is looking for commercial partners who want to use the technology and help him work out the remaining kinks. Companies would likely set up assembly lines with the robots, with each taking on a specific task on a garment. While Zornow says the polymer used to stiffen fabrics is reusable, Istook warns that it could lead to the excess use of chemicals and water, plus a new time-consuming step in the production process. That might negate any cost or resource reduction benefits of automation.

Part of its selling point is that Sewbo users can design and begin mass producing a new garment style in a day, as opposed to the months it typically takes to manufacture and ship a new garment design. Such a feat would certainly bring new meaning to the term “fast fashion.”

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