Robots of the Week

Sewing robots.  Although spinning and weaving have long been highly mechanized, the final phase of the apparel-making value chain has resisted automation:

IN 1970 William J. Bank, president of the Blue Jeans Corporation, predicted that there would be a man on Mars before the production of apparel was automated. Almost half a century later, he has not yet been proved wrong. 

But that may change soon, given recent development in robotic sewing. Two companies, Softwear Automation (Atlanta) and Sewbo (Seattle) are pursuing different strategies:  Softwear’s approach is to create computer vision and robotic manipulation which is intelligent and subtle enough to deal with highly flexible fabric, whereas Sewbo’s approach is to temporarily stiffen the fabric in order to make working with it more like metalworking.

Depending on how well these systems work in practice, and how the technology evolves, they may turn out to be not only the robots of the week, but the robots of the year or even the decade.  Apparel-making is a vast industry, concentrated in nations which are not-so-well-off economically, and employs a large number of people. A high level of automation would likely result in much of this production being relocated closer to the markets, thus saving transportation costs and shortening supply cycles.  The consequences for countries like China, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could be pretty unpleasant.

Most likely, unforeseen problems will slow the full deployment of these systems and an Apparel Apocalypse will not occur.  It would certainly be wise, though, for the leaderships of apparel-manufacturing-intensive countries to focus on the need to develop a broader employment base.

More here.

See also my post on 3d knitting

5 thoughts on “Robots of the Week”

  1. I’m mildly surprised that it’s held to be axiomatic (by some people) that self-driving cars are, ahem, just around the corner, but sewing is too difficult to automate.

  2. Seems to me that the *general* self-driving car problem is harder than the sewing problem: a much-less-controlled environment, interaction with objects (cars, pedestrians, construction work, etc) that are *not* under control of the same algorithm, much more serious consequences for errors, etc. I think we will likely see self-driving cars pretty soon in limited and restricted environments, but totally general use, much further way.

    Out of curiosity, Dearie, who is saying that self-driving is easier than automated sewing?

  3. It would be nice if the robots would hail the dawn of a new age of clothing that actually fits. I’m sure it’s possible: go to the store, pick your garment, have your body scanned, and the garment will be made and shipped to you without being touched by human hands.

    I am reminded of an episode of “Bewitched” in which Darrin’s client was a fashion designer, and Samantha whipped up some of the designer’s dresses and put them on ordinary women. The designer fainted when he saw how they looked on normal women and when he recovered, he realized the error of his ways. That will never ever happen: even if the stitching is done by robots, the designers will still design for women who are genetic freaks.

    Maybe if the robots become sufficiently commonplace and inexpensive, every shop will have one installed and I can finally have store-bought clothing that fits.

  4. Further, having now read the Economist article, although t-shirts may be a huge market, I would expect they are some of the lowest margin garments anyone can make, and t-shirt fabric is a pain in the butt to handle. Seems like it would make more sense to learn how to make a machine that can manipulate woven cotton or maybe even heavy wool coating which is much, much more stable, and once you can make a men’s dress shirt or a winter coat, you will have solved a lot of problems and could then maybe figure out how to handle annoying lightweight knits.

  5. “who is saying that self-driving is easier than automated sewing?” It’s an inference from your note about how hard sewing is, and other people’s views that the widespread use of self-driving cars is imminent.

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