I really do not know how I feel about this. Part of me is excited with every technological advancement, but then another part of me is a bit worried. Concerned about the changes this innovation will bring. What does a fully automated production of garments really mean for our industry and for the people who work in it? How will our world change if robots make our clothes?
Sewbo announced recently that it has managed to use an industrial robot to sew together a T-shirt. It overcame the big hurdle of handling soft fabric, aligning it is such a way that it could sew it together. An astonishing success. The process is rather simple; the fabric is cut then dipped in a water-soluble stiffener that makes it rigid, almost like metal. This way, off-the-shelf industrial robots can handle each piece of the pattern, manoeuvre it around, align it and stitch it together. When the sewing process is over, the finished garment is dipped in a solution to remove the stiffener and turn fabric again into its original soft properties. The special stiffener is then collected to be re-used. No waste there.
Video Courtesy of Sewbo Inc.
Imagine how this machine can possibly offer a better control over fabric consumption, allowing easier and more accurate calculations about how much fabric a given production will need. If a central computer analyses the design, and plans how a garment is pattern cut to an absolute efficiency, fabric expenses will reduce and together with it, the overall price of the garment. If this computer can also calculate how long it needs to complete a garment then we will be able to know exactly how long production will take. Production critical paths could possibly shrink to a couple of weeks, possibly resulting to quicker and more reactive designs that are both geographically and socioeconomically relevant. Then imagine if these robots are based closer to the retailer’s warehouse, or even inside them; transportation costs will be next to nothing. Handling and shipping processes revolutionised. The industry’s impact on the planet reduced.
In the west, apparel making expertise has declined after every aspects of production were exported. These robots could usher the return of a ‘360° production’ back to the west. With huge robot hubs possibly opening in every country in Europe and Northern America, Far East and South Asia countries will possibly not be able to compete with pricing. Not after one deducts all the extra costs that are included in the planning, making, and delivering of a garment. It is likely that countries such as China and India, will take an even more inward approach to business. Their vast markets will become far more important than the constantly dwindling orders from the West. What happens if they become importers of apparel rather than exporters, how will they react to the made in E.U. or U.S.A label?
But let us stop for a second and consider the impact this innovation will have on workers. Obviously many people will be out of work, technology making them and their expertise redundant. Does this mean that pattern cutting, fabric cutting, and sewing will become less of an art and more of an engineering task? How will a product look when a designer asks an engineer or software designer to input the correct information into the computer so that the correct interpretation of their design comes out of the production line? How will it change inspiration, design, fit?
It will possibly be an era of processed clothing VS hand-made certified garments. Anything touched by a human, an “artisan”, a craftsman could become a luxury for the few. A bigger gap between cheap “mass-automated” fashion and “hand-touched” fashion is possible. This already exists, I hear you say. True. However, do we really need more cheap fashion? Do we really need garments that have not been influenced by local expertise and craftsmanship?
3D clothing printing is being developed and suitable for printing fibres, that look and feel like cotton, being researched. There have been people advocating for a future where designs will be downloadable from a cloud to a printer, garments produced with no wastage to perfectly fit the body. These are all great, and perfect for the long voyages of the SS Enterprise. But I cannot avoid but raise a simple question: Don’t you want to know who made your clothes, and the history behind the brand you are buying? Doesn’t it feel good to know that however cheap your t-shirt is, at one point, a soulful designer, sat on a desk and envisioned how their design will look in the real world? But the counter argument is this. If humans are unburdened by mundane repetitive actions, will this allow them to do what they are doing best; be more creative?