Header Title



business models, strategies and technologies

Sidestepping robotics when things get floppy

Wonderment at the wonderfulness of robotics is easy: rethinking the processes where we use robotics less so.

Automation not easy with floppy materials

Automation and robotics have only made limited progress in clothing manufacture, because it’s difficult for the hardware to deal with the floppy, flexible fabrics involved.

Many steps in the garment production process are already widely automated, from the field to the yarn to the weaving and then cutting out the fabric pieces. Specialist equipment is also available for many specific sub-processes, like sewing on buttons. But it’s long been considered difficult for any commercial robot to sew the bits together to create an entire item of clothing. And – because of this key perception – there’s a whole world of sweatshops and garment industry nightmares out there.

This limited use of automation and robotics is basically because fabric is stretchy, pliable and floppy. The drag of the sewing machine head, the tension and specs of the thread and a whole range of variable fabric characteristics (often dependent on air and climate conditions, too) all impact the process of sewing together a garment from its component bits. For an automated setup, there’s also the problem of the focus on just one edge of the cloth at a time – the one being sewn. How is the machinery going to handle all the long trail of floppy stuff attached to that single edge?

Bold (though small!) Sewbo website declaration

Thinking sideways

The traditional engineering/automation specialist way of dealing with a challenge like this would be to layer on complexity and robotic capabilities – expensively and with a high risk of fallibility, bearing in mind the millions of fabric specifications and sewing conditions it’d have to deal with.

A small US company Sewbo, Inc. has tackled the problem in an unconventional way by simply rethinking the characteristics of the cloth, instead of all the machinery around it. The core idea is to make the cloth stiff, so that all the stretch and floppiness variables are simply eliminated. The stiffened item can then be moved around and handled just as if it were a piece of sheet metal. Fabric panels can be moulded and fused together (like tack-welding metal) so that the sewing process becomes easily manageable and glitch-free, using now-commonplace robotic equipment and standard sewing machines.

Robot Sewing Demonstration from Sewbo, Inc. from Jon Zornow on Vimeo.

Robotics just the tool for the rethink

Company founder Jonathan Zornow is using water-soluble thermoplastics to overcome one of the main barriers to rag trade innovation. According to Sewbo’s own information, it only takes a simple rinse in hot water to remove the stiffener at the end of the sewing process. And the stiffener can be recovered for re-use.

Zornow used a small, lightweight off-the-shelf cobot (apparently from Universal Robots) to do the business in his prototype setup – the point being that the solution is pretty much hardware-agnostic, and relatively low-tech. It’s not about the robotics or the automation – it’s about thinking sideways to make it possible to apply these.

Which seems like a recipe for big impacts on a lot of aspects of the fashion, clothing and sewing industries so dependent on low-cost human labour, wherever it can be found (or imposed). This particular approach might well stumble in the face of speed requirements in garment production, or aversion to any added complexity or subsidiary processes (= cost), but it’s a great example of how much robotics often isn’t the real crux – problem- or solution-wise.