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New autonomous factory with ‘Sewbots’ set to open in US

By Georgie Lillington

28 Aug 2017


Chinese clothing manufacturer Tianyuan Garments Company has announced plans to open an apparel factory in Arkansas, USA, fitted with automated sewing robots.

The Little Rock - based factory will implement 21 fully automated T-shirt production lines, using ‘Sewbot’ robots, developed by Atlanta-based SoftWear Automation.

The SoftWear Automation Sewbot technology, which has been in the pipeline since 2012 uses cameras to map soft fabrics, whilst robots pass the material through sewing machines.

Tianyuan Garments says the production process; from cutting and sewing fabric, to finished product takes approximately four minutes. “When fully operational, the system will make one T-shirt every 22 seconds. We will produce 800,000 T-shirts a day,” said Tang Xinhong, chairman of Tianyuan Garments in a press statement.

This autonomous process is set to reduce costs for each T-shirt to 33 cents, competing with global labour costs. “Even the cheapest labour market can’t compete with us,” Tang continued.

The autonomous systems will not render human jobs obsolete either, with three to five employees eventually needed on each production line. The Tianyuan Garments factory will employ 400 new members of staff, and in the long run offer higher salaries due to lowered production costs.

How will automation affect the manufacturing industry in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India?

As automation begins to seep into the garment manufacturing industry, the 27 millions jobs, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan could be at risk. Jobs in Bangladesh in particular are at risk, as 2.5 percent of the country’s population is currently employed in the garment industry, according to data from the Financial Times. With 82 percent of the the country’s exports stemming from the apparel industry the rise of garment automation could lead to the deindustrialisation of Bangladesh’s largest industry.

Rajiv Kumar, an economist and founder of the Pahle India Foundation, a not for profit think tank, said: “It could be a nightmare because of all the educated, aspiring young people who would be unemployed as a result of this automation,” in an interview with the Financial Times.

However, the rise of industrial automation in the garment industry will not likely happen over night, in spite of recent developments in technology. Low budgets, and cheap manual labour may also put big manufacturers off from investing in expensive automation robots like Sewbot.

“Yes, robots have started cutting soft cloth,” Arvind Subramanian, chief economic adviser to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, said in an interview with the Financial Times. “But I don’t know if it is the nine-or 10-year horizon we should worry about, or more realistically the 20-year horizon.”

Despite this, Palaniswamy Rajan, CEO of SoftWear Automation argued that the automation may “create pressure among [poorly regulated factories] to treat their workers fairly.” He added that low wage workers may also have the opportunity to shift to higher paid, artisanal work, producing garments like wedding dresses.

SoftWear Automation’s Sewbot is guaranteed to cause displacement in the world’s garment industry, but one of the company's main aims is to “bring textile manufacturing back to the US, while creating higher-wage jobs,” according to Rajan.

With a growing population, “the efficiencies [SoftWear Automation’s Sewbot] can bring are important for humanity’s survival,” both in terms of producing enough clothing as well as lowering carbon emissions adds Rajan.

To enforce these ideas, SoftWear Automation have joined forces with global initiative Fashion for Good, aiming to together, ‘fast-track sustainable innovation within the apparel supply chain.’ Predicting that Sewbot could decrease emissions by 10 percent, Fashion for Good are planning to scale Sewbot technology, implementing the technology into other manufacturing plants.

With automation advancing faster than consumers may think, ‘Sewbo’, another startup is offering garment manufacturing too.

The Seattle based start-up have created a robot that sews t-shirts from stiffened fabric, which is later softened in hot water to reveal the end garment. This revolutionary system eliminates the problem of flimsy fabrics making it hard for robots to move and sew the fabrics.

However, as resource sustainability remains key to industry developments, will the use of hot water lead to larger C02 emissions? Sewbo have tried to cut down its water usage, stating that ‘the stiffener can then be recovered [from the water] for reuse.’

There’s no doubt that automation will change the face of garment manufacturing industry for good, but with innovative solutions on the rise, it could pave the way for a more positive future for all parties involved.

Photo courtesy of SoftWear Automation