The robots set their sights on a new job: sewing blue jeans

The robots set their sights on a new job: sewing blue jeans

Dec 12 (Reuters) – Will a robot make your own blue jeans?

A quiet effort is underway to find out — including apparel and technology companies, including Germany’s Siemens AG (SIEGn.DE) Levi Strauss & Co Follow Favorite.

“Apparel is the last trillion-dollar industry that hasn’t been automated,” said Eugene Sologu, who heads a project at a Siemens lab in San Francisco that has been automating clothing manufacturing since 2018.

The idea of ​​using robots to bring in more manufacturing from abroad gained traction during the pandemic as faltering supply chains highlighted the dangers of relying on remote factories.

Finding a way to stop DIY in China and Bangladesh will allow more garment manufacturing to return to Western consumer markets, including the United States. But this is a sensitive topic.

Many garment makers are reluctant to talk about pursuing automation — because it raises fears that workers in developing countries will suffer. Jonathan Zurnow, who has developed technology to automate some parts of jeans factories, said he has received criticism online — and death threats.

A Levy’s spokesperson said he could confirm the company was involved in the early stages of the project but declined to comment further.

Wet cloth problem

Sewing poses a particular challenge to automation.

Unlike a car bumper or a plastic bottle, which holds its shape as a robot handles it, fabric is flexible and comes in an endless variety of thicknesses and textures. Robots simply do not have the dexterous touch possible with human hands. Robots are certainly improving, but it will take years to fully develop their ability to manipulate tissue, according to five researchers interviewed by Reuters.

But what if enough of it could be machined to close at least some of the cost difference between US and low-cost foreign factories? This is the focus of the research effort now underway.

The work at Siemens grew out of efforts to create software for guiding robots that could handle all kinds of flexible materials, such as thin wire cable, Solowjow said, adding that they soon realized that one of the most mature goals was clothing. The global apparel market is estimated to be worth $1.52 trillion, according to independent data platform Statista.

Siemens has worked with the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute in Pittsburgh, which was set up in 2017 with funding from the Department of Defense to help manufacturers of legacy lines find ways to use the new technology. They identified a San Francisco startup with a promising approach to the elastic fabric problem. Instead of teaching robots how to handle cloth, Sewbo Inc. Emerging fabrics are reinforced with chemicals so that they can be treated like a shock absorber during production. Once finished, the garment is washed to remove the stiffening agent.

“Almost every piece of denim is washed after it’s made anyway, so it fits in with the current production system,” said Zornow, the inventor of Sewbo.

Pick the bots

This research effort eventually grew to include several clothing companies, including Levi’s and Bluewater Defense LLC, a small American manufacturer of military uniforms. They have received $1.5 million in grants from the Pittsburgh Robotics Institute to pilot the technology.

There are other efforts to automate sewing factories. Software Automation Inc., a Georgia startup, has developed a machine that can sew T-shirts by dragging the material over a specially equipped table, for example.

Eric Spaki, CEO of uniform maker Bluewater Defense, has been part of the research effort with Siemens, but is skeptical of Sewbo’s approach. “Putting the (stiffener) into the clothes — it just adds another process,” said Spaki, adding to the costs, though he adds that it may make sense for producers who already do laundry as part of their normal operations, such as makers of jeans.

The first step is to introduce robots into garment factories.

Sanjeev Bahl, who opened a small jeans factory in downtown Los Angeles two years ago called Saitex, has studied Sewbo machines and is preparing to install his first experimental machine.

Driving through his factory in September, he pointed to workers hunched over the old machinery, and said many of those tasks were ready for the new process.

“If it works,” he said, “I think there is no reason why (jeans) should not be reintroduced on a large scale here in the United States again.”

Read more:

Analysis – Retailers are turning to robots in the fight against cost inflation

Robots march in 2021, with record orders by North American companies

(Reporting by Timothy Abel in New York). Editing by Dan Burns and Lisa Shumaker

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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