The rise of the robot seamstress

Every single piece of clothing you own has passed through someone’s hands. When I think about my wardrobe I am humbled by the work that goes into every stitch of clothing I own.

Human contact with fabric is one of the defining characteristics of the garment industry and it is about to change forever. In just the same way that James Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny replaced the hand loom, new machines are being released this month that will replace legions of people sitting at sewing machines all over the world within a decade. This is going to have a profound effect on economies.

The one thing that has preserved the labour-intensive nature of the garment industry for centuries is the fact that we could not teach a machine to have the sensitivity of the human touch. Cloth is so flimsy that hands were always needed to guide it through the sewing machine. If we were to create a machine with hand possessing the same number of sensors as we have nerve endings in just one finger the processing power required would be fall squarely into big data. Yet people with very little education can sew efficiently and reliably and have being doing it for thousands of years.

That’s about to change. We might not yet have figured out how to teach a machine to feel but we can teach them to see.

I was excited to speak with the CEO of privately held Softwear Inc., HP Reddy, last week because I believe this is the kind of innovation that has far-reaching consequences and not just for the garment industry. I’ve been following the company since they spun out from Georgia Tech to commercialise the technology they had developed.

The company’s origins are from an Act of Congress that obliges the US Armed Forces to source all uniforms from domestic suppliers. As you can imagine the USA is not the cheapest clothing manufacturer so the Department of Defence funded research into how to make it cheaper to make uniforms at home.

Softwear’s robots are the answer

Most of what people think about robots relates to hardware and software but that misses a big component: optics. Softwear’s intellectual property resides in the algorithms that teach the robot to recognise colour and texture and from that derive how and where to sew.

Mr Reddy confirmed that the company already has robots in the field that can manufacture rugs, towels and pocket squares but will be releasing a robot this month that will be able to sew just about anything.

Because of its original aim to manufacture for the US military the company was expecting to do business with US factories. It was also hoping to do business with the American companies that wanted to bring jobs back, set up localised manufacturing, and so on. But there are not very many of them left with the capacity to justify the expense of the robots because most manufacturing has already been offshored. However, there is definitely growth in the craft brewer model where customised manufacturing is making a comeback with fresh unique products that appeal to consumers, and that is where they were expecting growth.

Many of the large brands like Under Armour or Lululemon have never manufactured in the USA; they have predominately contracted it out. They want to take ownership of their supply chains, have greater configurability, so they can have SKUs come out and design and market faster than they ever have.

However the ability to do that in the USA is limited

The USA just doesn’t have the management expertise in running a major garment factory any more. All of the big factories are in Asia; predominately China, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Softwear had expected to market to Asian countries a few years from now, but “has been surprised by significant visits from companies in China, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka aggressively pursuing automation. Because they are so large their view is they have to automate now in order to meet their 10-year goals.”

Billion Dollar companies where major brands like H&M, Zara, Wal-Mart, Tesco etc. manufacture clothing expect to be FULLY automated by 2026. The garment industry employs approximately 75 million people globally and substantial numbers of them will be looking for jobs elsewhere within a decade. I wrote last week about how technology is deflationary. However the question now is if the pace of technological innovation is accelerating, then are the deflationary forces unleased by that evolution also accelerating?

It’s big question. Mr Reddy estimates that it will be about three years before you can visit a website, completely design any garment you wish and have it delivered the same day. Just last week Burberry announced that it will make runway fashions available in its stores as soon as they come out on the catwalk. That’s seen as a major innovation for a major brand.

Yet three years from now it will look practically prehistoric

I was in Guangzhou in November and a brand there with one-size-fits-all fashion is producing new lines every day. That’s what’s happening today but it’s all going to be different before the end of the decade. So many young men and women have wonderful creativity and a real love of the fashion industry but lack capital and manufacturing capacity to get their designs on the market. With the types of the machines that will be available in the next decade the number of designs that will be available is going to explode. You will purchase the design you want and have it manufactured locally. The size of the fashion industry is going to multiply as the cost of customisation and tailoring collapses. If you’ve ever had a suit or dress tailor made to your exact specifications then every garment you own will fit exactly.

This is a great example of how technology will remove low-tech jobs that can be automated but will create much higher value jobs dependent on individuality, creativity and intellectual property.

Softwear is still privately held and while they make money with today’s products they will be going through another private equity funding round this year as they expand. The company is certainly looking at an IPO at some stage but that is still a ways off. I’ll be keeping tabs on their development and will keep an eye out for more companies that have the potential to reshape the world we live in.

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Category: Robotics

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