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Sewbotics: The “Last Mile” in Automated Apparel Technology
As brands look to take time and waste out of the apparel design and manufacturing process, there is a strong focus on automation. Much progress has been made—yet the sewing stage has provided challenges. Softwear Automation is tackling that challenge with SewBots—robotics designed to automate the sewing process. Senior Editor Cary Sherburne spoke with Softwear Automation’s Chief Commercial Officer, Pete Santora, to learn more.
By Cary Sherburne
Published: January 21, 2019
The “last mile” is a phrase widely used in the telecommunications, cable television, and Internet industries to refer to the final leg of the networks that deliver telecommunications services to retail customers. It’s a phrase that comes to mind when thinking about the apparel design and production supply chain, which is becoming increasingly automated. In this case, the last mile would be the sewing process, which heretofore has remained minimally automated and still quite labor-intensive, often requiring skills that can be hard to come by in developed parts of the world such as North America and Europe. But that will all change if Softwear Automation has its way. We spoke with Pete Santora, Softwear Automation’s Chief Commercial Officer, to learn exactly what that means.
WhatTheyThink: Pete, tell us about Softwear Automation.
Pete Santora: We think of ourselves like Tesla for sewing. We use machine vision to map fabric, and robotics to steer the fabric through the sewing process. We spun out of Georgia Tech after seven years of research and development working on projects with DARPA and the Walmart Foundation. SoftWear’s fully autonomous SEWBOT® allows manufacturers to SEWLOCAL™, moving their supply chains closer to the customer while creating higher quality products at a lower cost.
WTT: I can understand Walmart, but why would DARPA be interested in this?
PS: This is due to the Berry Amendment. As you can read on the U.S. Department of Commerce site, this is “a statutory requirement that restricts the Department of Defense (DoD) from using funds appropriated or otherwise available to DoD for procurement of food, clothing, fabrics, fibers, yarns, other made-up textiles, and hand or measuring tools that are not grown, reprocessed, reused, or produced in the United States. The Berry Amendment has been critical to maintaining the safety and security of our armed forces, by requiring covered items to be produced in the United States. With respect to textiles and clothing, the Berry Amendment has been critical to the viability of the textile and clothing production base in the United States.” The big issue here, in terms of apparel, is the risk associated with the relatively small number of seamstresses in the U.S.—only about 140,000. That spurred DARPA to issue grants for companies to look into this issue, and we were beneficiaries of some of those grants.
WTT: Aside from DoD, what other factors are driving adoption of sewing automation?
PS: Brands are looking to move to a Made to Measure or On-Demand production model where possible. This means that goods are ordered, paid for and then manufactured, turning the current process on its head. That eliminates the waste and cost associated with large inventories, and it also enables reshoring of apparel manufacturing, enabling faster time to market, an increased number of collections each year, and even cost-effective customization down to the individual level.
WTT: What products are you focused on?
PS: We started with the home goods market. Northern Georgia is the carpet capital of the world, and the vast majority of home goods consumed in North America are manufactured there. And we have now started to move into apparel—which was always the focus, but we had to work up to that point. The first is T-shirts and later we will move into jeans and pants, then dress shirts. We are more focused on adult attire than children’s since there are additional complexities to children’s clothes.
WTT: And what are those complexities?
PS: Smaller turning radiuses and tighter angles, among others.
WTT: Do you do anything with the cutting process?
PS: No, just sewing. Cutting has already been solved.
WTT: Was home goods selected first because they tend to be more regular shapes?
PS: It’s not so much the shape. We do a lot of automotive mats and they have a crazier shape than T-shirts. But with T-shirts, you have two layers to manipulate, and the fabric distorts more than an automotive mat. So it’s more about managing stretchier, lighter materials that distort more, and sewing in two layers.
WTT: Talk a little about the process for a T-shirt.
PS: You can find a good video of the process on YouTube, but basically, the SewBot takes one piece off of the stack from the cutter, and then the second piece. We use heat transfer in partnership with Avery Dennison to put the label on the back of the T-shirt. Then we sew the shoulder seams on both sides and now it is attached. Next the piece is picked up and flattened, the sleeves are attached, and we close it up all the way with side seams. The sleeves and body are hemmed, and the collar is attached. The final step is to put on shoulder tape as a reinforcement.
WTT: How long does it take to sew a T-shirt and how many humans are involved?
PS: We do a T-shirt approximately every 25 seconds, and the only human is the one managing the line. Making a T-shirt involves 10 different operations, and normally you have 10 to 15 people involved. That model simply doesn’t work in developed regions like the U.S. and Europe. We take it from 10 to 15 down to one.
WTT: What made T-shirts attractive as a first stop for apparel?
PS: There are about three billion T-shirts consumed annually in the U.S., and the vast majority are produced offshore. Our goal is to make 100 million T-shirts in the U.S in the next three years. Over the next seven to 10 years, we want to do a third of the market, a billion T-shirts annually. We think that goal is achievable. We announced a partnership with Li & Fung, a global supply chain leader for U.S. brands, and Tian Yuan has opened a factory in Arkansas. We give them the missing piece for a full end-to-end solution for garment manufacturing. We also have a series of other factories we will announce in the next couple of months.
WTT: Those are aggressive goals and require more than just sewing to accomplish.
PS: Yes, it requires a fully automated manufacturing facility. We still have the supply chain here to be able to do it, but we need to increase investments in the supply chain and we are seeing that happen. There are some new Chinese-run textile mills starting up, and we have the cotton here. The supply chain is starting to focus not just on automated sewing, but on how all of these pieces come together to enable fully automated manufacturing of goods. That’s the only way we can be competitive with offshore manufacturing. In Europe, if that happens, they will be at a slight disadvantage because they don’t grow their own cotton. Yarns mostly come from Africa. To be the most effective, it all needs to be under one roof, from farm, to gin, to spin and weave, to knitting—profit margins are better if it can all be managed under one roof by one operator.
WTT: Speaking of Europe, congratulations on your recent award there. Tell us about that.
PS: WTIN named us for Best Innovation: Machine Digitalisation. We were very pleased to receive the award and have our achievements recognized by the industry in this way.