In a robots of the week post a while back, I mentioned two companies that are attempting to automate the apparel-production process. Recently, one of these companies, Softwear Automation, announced that its Sewbot product is now also available on a rental basis under the banner Sewbot as a Service. (SaaS, playing off the acronym for the currently-hot field of Software as a Service.) From the SaaS announcement:
From 1994 to 2005, the United States lost more than 900,000 textile and apparel jobs to offshoring.
Fast-forward to 2018. The pendulum is swinging back and textiles are returning as lean, highly automated, environmentally conscious production facilities. Within the last six years, there have been significant announcements by foreign-owned textile companies investing in the United States, with site selection choices clustered in the Southeast including the first Chinese owned Cut Make Trim factory in Arkansas.
Despite this industry reversal, the seamstresses are not returning. While the knowledge can be shared to upskill workers, people don’t have the desire to work in a traditional textile factory.
To solve this and accelerate the growth of US based textile manufacturing, Softwear Automation is announcing SEWBOTS-as-a-Service, a rental lease service to allow manufacturers, brands, and retailers to source and manufacture here in the US at a lower cost than outsourcing and with greater predictability and quality. While we understand the benefits of “Made in America”, the focus of this program is to offer US textile manufacturing more control, greater margin, faster turn times and less inventory.
The rental rate for Sewbot is quoted as starting at $5000/month, which comes to $55/shift for a three-shift operation.Softwear is also now offering production-rate estimates for various kinds of textile products. For microfiber towels, a single operator supervising 6 robots can make 2880 towels in an 8-hour shift, compared with 223 towels for a single operator performing traditional manual activities. Other product types which the company sees as suitable for Sewbot automation include mattress covers, pillows, automotive floormats, t-shirts, and shoes (uppers).
Most aspects of the apparel supply chain have long been highly automated: indeed, the mechanization of spinning and weaving was the hallmark of the Industrial Revolution. The sewing process, however, has remained stubbornly labor-intensive, largely because the flexible nature of fabric makes it hard to handle mechanically. Softwear Automation’s solution involves the use of machine vision for precise fabric positioning. This article at IEEE Spectrum explains a little bit about how it works.
Depending on how well these systems turn out to 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. For the US, the onshoring of the work would seem clearly to be beneficial.
I don’t know enough about the industry to analyze the economics of Sewbot vs low-wage-country production in any depth, but back-of-the envelope for one product type (the towels) suggests that on a pure direct labor cost per unit basis, a US-based Sewbot can still be undercut by human labor rates below about $4/hour. (Calculated using the rental rate: for many companies, purchase may offer better economics.) But production isn’t the only factor in the product cost equation, of course, and in many situations proximity to end markets will be of considerable value: especially simpler inventory control and faster response to style changes. And a Made in the USA label is surely worth at least something. Also, the economics may be different for some of the other product types…for the t-shirts, the company is citing a unit cost of $.33 for US-based production using Sewbot…this compares with something around $.22 for a country such as Bangladesh, and is probably cheaper than China at the current wage rates.