A Robot of the Week, Revisited

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.

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Loyalty and Risk-Taking

In one of the old Neptunus Lex posts that Bill Brandt has been rerunning at The Lexicans, Lex wrote about the man who was CO of his FA-18 training squadron:

My student cohort held him in awe: We’d been told that he had received an Air Medal during the war for saving a squadron mate’s life, or his liberty anyway. The latter had come off target badly hit and managed to limp only as far as the harbor at Hai Phong before his machine came apart. The pilot had been forced to eject and was floating in his raft a mile or so off shore, when he saw an NVA patrol craft bounding out to seize him. The unlucky aviator was contemplating the austere amenities of the Hanoi Hilton when our CO roared overhead at 500 feet, firing a Shrike missile in boresight mode.

The Shrike is an anti-radiation missile, designed to home on enemy radar and destroy it.  The radar-following mechanism is its only guidance system; the only way to hit a target that is not emitting radar is to get very close to it before you fire the missile–thereby placing yourself at considerable additional risk  Lex’s CO had taken that risk, destroying the North Vietnamese patrol craft, and making it possible for the shot-down pilot to be rescued by helicopter..

Reading the story, I couldn’t help wondering:  which if any of our current crop of political candidates and leaders would–in the extremely unlikely event that they ever found themselves flying combat aircraft–have made the same decision?

Don’t you belong on a beach?

In comment thread of another post, Grurray asked:

“I know the Marines are the best fighting force in the world, but haven’t you had enough of building nations in the middle of the desert? You’re called Marines for a reason. Shouldn’t the future should be closer to the shore?” (sic)

I’ll take the sentiment kindly. Marines usually do fine when compared to other forces. I hesitate to call ourselves the “best” or “finest.” But the Marines are probably as good as any force out there.

As for meat of the question: Marines are amphibious fighters, right? What are you doing in a landlocked country?

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Future History Friday — China’s “Days of Future Past” Come Closer

Back on July 25, 2014 I posted a column here called “Future History Friday — China’s Coming “Days of Future Past” where I stated that China’s hyper-aggressiveness with its neighbors would make Japan act like a “normal nation,” increase its military defenses of the Southern Ryukyus and make military alliances with its neighbors to contain China. Today, a “flaming datum” of that prediction arrived. Japan has just announced steps to bring those “Days of Future Past” closer for China. The Japanese are moving to militarily garrison Miyako and Ishigaki with ground troops and mobile anti-ship missile batteries.

JGSDF Type88 Anti-ship cruise missile in truck mobile launcher.  Batteries of which are to be deployed to the Southern Ryukyus islands.
JGSDF Type88 Anti-ship cruise missile in truck mobile launcher. Batteries of which are to be deployed to the Southern Ryukyus islands. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

See:

Japan prepares to deploy troops on Miyako and Ishigaki|WantChinaTimes.com

Watch Out, China: Japan Deploys 600 Troops, Missiles near Disputed Islands | The National Interest Blog

The May-June 2015 Issue | The National Interest

Miyako and Ishigaki were air bases for Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Kamikaze planes based on Formosa — modern day Taiwan — during the March – June 1945 Battle for Okinawa. Today, they are being prepared to support any operations Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are ordered to do by the Japanese government…including communications to and air support of Taiwan in case of a Mainland Chinese Invasion.

 A Google map of Miyako and Ishigaki islands, part of the Okinawa Prefecture.  They are now to be the site of mobile anti-ship cruise missile batteries.as well as ground troops to secure them
A Google map of Miyako and Ishigaki islands, part of the Okinawa Prefecture. In March – June 1945 they were forward bases for Kamikazes attacking the US Navy. Today they are become the site of Japanese Self-Defense Force Type 88 Surface-to-Ship Missile Batteries, as well as Japanese ground troops to secure them.

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