Companies are developing robots to make clothes | Popgen Tech
Major apparel and technology companies, including Siemens AG and Levi Strauss & Co., are developing robots to make clothes. The process of using robots or computers to do human work, known as automation, has created concerns about jobs for many people around the world.
Eugen Solowjow leads a project on automated clothing production at the Siemens laboratory in San Francisco.
“Apparel is the last trillion-dollar non-automated industry,” he said.
The global apparel market is valued at $1.52 trillion, according to independent research group Statista.
Supply chain issues
The idea of using robots to increase production in the United States has become more popular during the pandemic. COVID-19 got in the way supplies chains around the world, highlighting the risk of using remote factories.
But the return of clothing production to Western markets, including the US, is a sensitive issue.
Many apparel companies are not confident in publicly discussing automation. Such reports fuel public concern that automation will take jobs away from workers in poor countries.
One of the inventors, Jonathan Zornow, said he received online criticism and death threats for his work.
A problem with the fabric
Sewing – the act of using a needle and thread to make a garment – is particularly difficult to automate.
Robots do not have the fine touch skills of human hands. Robots are getting better, but it will take years to fully develop their capabilities pen tissue, said five researchers interviewed by Reuters.
But today’s research efforts are also aimed at making the machine do enough work to close the cost gap between American and foreign plants.
The work at Siemens grew out of an effort to create software to control robots that could handle any type of material, such as thin wire cables, Solozhov said. He added that researchers soon realized that one of the best targets for automation was clothing.
Siemens collaborated with the Institute for Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) in Pittsburgh. They identified a San Francisco company with a promising way to tackle the fabric problem. Startup Sewbo Inc. makes the fabric stiffer with chemicals. In this case, the hardened fabric is similar to other materials that robots can handle, such as metal. After the robots finish sewing the piece, the garment is washed to remove the chemicals.
“Virtually every piece of denim is washed after it’s made, so it fits into the existing production system,” said Zornow, the inventor of Sewbo.
This study expanded to include several apparel companies, including Levi’s and Bluewater Defense LLC, a small American manufacturer of military clothing. They received $1.5 million from the ARM Institute to experiment with the technique.
There are other efforts to automate garment factories. Software Automation Inc, a startup in Georgia, has developed a machine that can sew clothes by, for example, stretching the fabric over a special table.
Sanjiv Bahl, who opened a small Saitex jeans factory in downtown Los Angeles two years ago, studied Sewbo’s machines. He is preparing to set up his first experimental machine.
At his factory in September, he said many sewing jobs are ready for the new process.
“If it works,” he said, “I think there’s no reason not to start a large-scale production (of jeans) here in the United States.”
I’m John Russell.
Timothy Epel reported this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
The words in this story
texture – n. the way something feels when you touch it
supply chain — n. companies, materials and systems involved in the production and delivery of goods
thread — n. a long thin piece of cotton, silk, etc., used for sewing
pen — c. to direct or control (something) with the hands
harden – c. make (something, such as cloth) difficult to bend or move
fabric – n. woven or knitted material
denim – n. a durable, usually blue, cotton fabric used especially for sewing jeans
scale — n. the size or level of something especially compared to something else