Building a robot that can sew even simple clothes is surprisingly hard. Robots are good at dealing with things that are rigid, but not with soft, flexible things like fabric. As a result, most clothes today are still made by women sitting in a factory, using sewing machines. But the automated manufacturing company SoftWear is changing that. It has developed a robot which has a half-a-millimetre sewing accuracy, meaning it can do things well above and beyond human capability, like sew a perfect circle. The innovation is in the cameras, which help the sewing robot track where the threads are at every moment and take corrective action if the fabric stretches or shifts.
This is not an isolated signal of change. Robots are already sewing simple items like bath towels. And recently, Adidas unveiled its “SpeedFactory”, a new robot-operated facility in southern Germany which will start producing shoes in 2017. Its rival Nike is also developing a robot-operated factory.
With 97% of US clothes imported today, automation promises quicker turnaround and lower transport costs (as well as greater precision). It could also bring clothes manufacturing back to the US, though this will not mean the return of many manufacturing jobs. If anything, very few, highly-skilled jobs on manufacturing factory floors will remain if the use of sewing robots scales up. As a result, low-wage sewing in the developing world will be disrupted, a mixed blessing since these jobs are both lambasted as sweatshop labour, but are also often the way out of poverty for many.
Robot-made apparel will bring many benefits for retailers and consumers, but it is not yet clear what their long-term impact on labour will be, especially if other areas – which displaced labour might otherwise move into – are also automating.