Fashion’s smart future? Meet Sewbo the sewing robot!

Image by Sewbo

The fashion industry is one of the fastest evolving industries, there is no doubt about that. But one would be surprised to know that within the industry itself, when it came to their systems and procedures there hasn’t been vast changes.

Although trends come and go many of the manufacturing methods, merchandising techniques, and design to fashion store life cycle, has remained somewhat the same. There have been many changes in the way fashion is bought and sold today especially since the masses have aced the act of shopping at online stores, and the technology behind it has made it easier than ever.

Unlike the automobile and aviation industry where great advances took place in the past decades the apparel factories stay mostly unchanged. Many however moved from the U.S. to the opposite side of the Pacific in countries where labor costs were lower which helped meet the demand for cheaper clothing. As per a study conducted by the U.S Fashion Industry Association, 43% of local fashion companies cited the rise in production or sourcing costs as their biggest or second biggest challenge.

Consequently the creator of this new invention hopes to bring back some business lured by reduced costs with the introduction of automation in the industry. This invention is by a startup called Sewbo which has developed a way for robots to sew an entire garment and this might drive the clothing manufacturers to go fully automatic.

The inventor Jonathan Zornow is a software developer whose bedtime addiction of the Discovery Channel show “How it’s made” lit his mind up with a great idea. While watching an episode on the making of jeans he was shocked to discover the complications involved in the procedure and how hundreds of people are needed to deliver the finished product.

Zornow was disturbed by the idea how there was little automation in the field for he had assumed that the scores of clothes that we own were being created by machines. With the revelation of this new truth Zornow worked on Sewbo which is a chemical process that stiffens fabrics to be used by sewing robots to make a full garment.

Today the industry uses human labor to guide the fabric through machines and weave them within the lines of assembly. While it sounded berserk to Zornow that all this labor was spent on seemingly simple goods he soon understood that the process was actually a lot more intricate and getting robots to do this was not an easy task to accomplish.

Yet, only after its first year the startup received numerous queries from overseas factories that produce almost all of U.S’s clothing, as only 3% of apparel production happens locally, according to American Apparel and Footwear Association. The creator believes that automation will be the main tool for the mushrooming movement of re-shoring factories back into the U.S, as it can compete with the low foreign labor costs.

In the earlier attempts companies tried to create devices that were very complicated as they tried imitating human movements in sewing. So Zornow tried a different approach and instead made the materials compatible with the robots. His process stiffens the materials because that’s what robots require and drenching the fabrics in liquid polymers did just that. It made the material into thermoplastic composites which are hard and hence can be used by robots.

By applying heat the fabric can then be reshaped and the sewing machine can sew through the stiff fabric to create any finished product. Zornow claims that the process can be used with most robotic arms and any sewing machine, and afterwards the finished product can be simply washed off with water.

However a few limitations exist. As the material must be wet certain fabrics like leather and wool cannot be used however soft delicate fabrics like silks work. In a demo it took Sewbo process around 30 minutes to finish a t-shirt although the company believes that it will require even lesser time once on the industrial assembly line. Zarnow claims this product will work at the same speed as humans and is much better as robots don’t need breaks or commit errors.

While his work is great, the environment in U.S is not ready as there are currently not many industrial-scale manufacturing experts. Domestic firms like Cathcart focusing on automating processes, robotics and digital innovation believe that the current face of fashion industry is very outdated and they are not inclined to change.

That being said, the expected $1.4 trillion worth of the industry for the coming year should be an encouragement to those interested in automating their manufacture processes but are afraid of the high first time investment that is needed. Experts believe that it will pay for itself over the years as labor costs will diminish and the technology will evolve.

And the technology is evolving fast; which is evident from the changes coming in from robotics and artificial intelligence. Zornow sees great potential and opportunity in the local manufacturing sector and sees the number of robotics being used in apparel rising fast.

However some overseas apparel manufacturing companies do not foresee this. Industry managers who have supervised production across Asia, Europe and the U.S are of the opinion that this business is not coming stateside in the near future. They do not expect companies in the U.S to spend on expensive machinery as fast fashion, being a prominent chunk of the trade, has low margins and require fast delivery.

Currently companies are enforced towards seeking lowest possible wages and even companies in china are outsourcing work to Vietnam, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. On the other hand it is to be noted that there will come a time when even the cheapest of the labor will run out and factories will have to move towards automation.

For many automation is the only way forward and innovations like Sewbo are a good vehicle to bring the change.