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Posted on June 14, 2017

Sewbots brings manufacturing closer to home

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For the past 30 years, technology has rapidly evolved in every area save sewing. Advanced computer-assisted design software has made the design process easier. Computer controlled cutting has alleviated bottlenecks in the cutting room. Yet, the only real solution around sewing has been to chase cheap labor around the globe.
 
SoftWear Automation is disrupting the $100 billion sewn products industry by creating autonomous sewn good worklines for Home Goods, Footwear & Apparel. The Atlanta-based machine vision and robotics startup spun out of Georgia Tech after 7 years of research and development working on projects with DARPA and the WALMART Foundation. SoftWear's fully automated Sewbots allow manufacturers to SEWLOCAL™, moving their supply chains closer to the customer while creating higher quality products at a lower cost.
 
SoftWear Automation Inc has announced it has received $4.5 million in financing from existing investor, CTW Venture Partners. The funding will accelerate the company's development of fully automated sewn good worklines specifically for apparel production in the United States. Additionally, the company plans to add 20 employees to keep pace with growing customer demand.
 
SoftWear Automation, which counts leading brands among its customers, is leading the disruption of the $100 billion sewn products industry with its next-generation sewing worklines for home goods, footwear and apparel. The company's fully automated Sewbots™ allow manufacturers to SEWLOCAL™, moving their supply chains closer to the customer while creating higher quality products at a lower cost.
 
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"Our innovative Sewbots are moving needles to the fabric instead of fabric to the needle," said Palaniswamy "Raj" Rajan, SoftWear Automation Chairman and CEO. "Factories today chase cheap labor around the world and we have ended up with an unsustainable supply chain. SoftWear Automation's Sewbots can move that manufacturing closer to the customer or the raw materials."
 
The company's patented computer vision systems view fabric more accurately than the human eye, tracking exact needle placement to within half a millimeter of accuracy. With this industry-leading technology quickly becoming a de facto addition to the sewn products manufacturing process, SoftWear's sales grew 1,000 percent from 2015 (started shipping product) to 2016. The company is on target to grow at the same rate through 2017.
 
The American Apparel and Footwear Association reports 97 percent of all apparel in the United States currently is imported. According to Rajan, one of SoftWear's most important goals is to help bring textile manufacturing back to the United States while creating higher-wage jobs for those supervising the Sewbots' work. "U.S. textile manufacturing will look different when it comes back, but it will be more productive and provide higher paying jobs than before," said Rajan. "Right now people move things around because labour is expensive. But with our line, that equation now changes. The vision I paint is if you have a cotton field, a yarn factory, and a fabric mill next door, and you make your T-shirts next to it, that's the most efficient supply chain. So if we can enable that, we can reduce the inventory cycle and the turnover cycle; we can ship on a weekly basis instead of having to ship three or four or six weeks across from a distant supply chain. So we're bringing efficiencies - and sustainability -into the market. The other way of bringing efficiency is to have the finished fabric, but not make the final product until I get orders from my customer. So you can now put this close to where logistics hubs are worldwide, where you can ship very quickly and a customer gets it in a week. Those are all possibilities that we enable with our technology that are not doable today."
 
Fully automated worklines for T-shirts and work cells for jeans operations are finally on the horizon
 
The Atlanta-based business has spent the past eight years developing its fully automated robotic worklines for complete garment production, first at Georgia Tech and subsequently on projects with the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Walmart Foundation, securing a US$2m grant to look at how robotics could enable clothing to be made competitively in the US. CTW Venture Partners, a venture capital firm founded by Rajan, has also invested in the business.
 
One of its first projects was on constructing jeans. "We did the first operation for jeans completely autonomously, we didn't touch anything,"Pete Santora, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, says. "The material comes in one side as cut pieces, we get all the sew data out of Gerber's Accumark files, so that when the designer designs the good in 2D or 3D, the sew data is embedded in the file that goes right to the robot; the robot then uses cameras to see the piece as it comes by, routes the good to the appropriate station, and then we use machine vision and robotics to map the weave of the fabric, and then as the fabric distorts we use the robotics to continually manipulate the fabric through the sewing head, just like a seamstress would."
 
Building on this, the next commercial launch will be a fully automated workline for complete T-shirts - which should be available by the end of next next year - and "will go from cut pieces into a sewing line and out the other end will come a finished T-shirt," Santora says. "We picked T-shirts because everyone wears T-shirts, but 97% of all T-shirts made are exported...that means they are made somewhere they are not consumed. The US in particular is the third-largest producer of cotton, it has the cheapest cotton in the world, it is the highest quality cotton in the world...and yet we make no T-shirts. So for us T-shirts are this linchpin product that shows how unsustainable the supply chain is and how, when you have all these goods in an area, why aren't they being consumed and then made into a product?"
 
The company last month named Dr MikeFralix, the president and CEO of Textile Clothing Technology Corporation (TC)2, as its 'technology evangelist'. Among his tasks will be to help identify key partners to support and enable more local manufacturing.
 
Source and top image: SoftWear Automation