automated sewing Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the Department of Defense could be the reasons why the apparel industry finally becomes fully automated.

SoftWear Automation Inc. just delivered on its final phase of a 24-month project to automate jean production for Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart Foundation and Wal-Mart Stores gave Georgia Institute of technology grant money to figure out how to get robots to take over the sewing process. By collaborating with SoftWear, the two has now begun to solve the myriad of challenges that sewing presents to robotic processing.

The “sewbots” were able to accurately place two pattern pieces, transport them and sew the outside seam on a pair of jeans with the push of a button. The robot uses a variety of air devices to pick up the fabric pieces and then place them correctly at the sewing machine. The machines have cameras that function as eyes to make sure the sewing happens in the correct sport.

SoftWear got its start after the company received a round of funding from the DOD to look at solving the problem of automating sewing. Military uniforms must be made in the U.S., but manufacturing thousands of uniforms domestically presents some challenges. SoftWear spokesperson Anastasia Simon said that one problem in particular is that soldiers come into the military wearing one size and then change as they become more fit. The military has a hard time providing multiple sizes to soldiers and felt that if the process were automated, more uniforms could be turned out more quickly. This money helped get the company off the ground.

To address Wal-Mart’s issue, they started with unlocking the process of sewing a pair of denim jeans, which takes 38 different steps. The main challenge for robotics and sewing is that fabric is flimsy. This lack of rigidity makes it hard for robots to pick up pieces and move them. Denim is a great trial fabric because it is stiffer than many other textiles. This was solved by using a combination of vacuum and compression air.

The tricky part is when a human seamstress would normally pick up the item and them adjust the product for the next step. Simon said their main challenge in this stage is to keep the right tension on the fabric as it is manipulated for the next level of sewing. The company’s goal is to accomplish automating all 38 steps in jean production over the next two years. There are already automated fabric-cutting processes and pocket-making that the company can integrate into their procedures.

Wal-Mart decided in 2013 that it wanted to spend $250 billion on U.S.-made goods. But the company found that it was easier said than done and ran into major supply chain problems. In order to solve for this problem, they launched the $10 million U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund in 2014. The retail giant awarded grants to 7 universities with the first group focusing on textiles. The idea is to innovate the processes of fabric printing, dyeing and cutting in order to make U.S. goods more competitive with foreign products.

According to Simon, the apparel industry has been slow to invest in automating the sewing process because labor is so cheap. But as labor costs rise in China, apparel manufacturers are now turning to Bangladesh and India for the latest cheap labor. There is also a cultural shift in China that Millennials don’t want to sit in a factory and sew. Either their parents want them to pursue education or work in a call center, but not a factory like themselves.

Simon said the company isn’t looking to eliminate all apparel manufacturing jobs. Instead, automation would create a new category of highly skilled sewing technicians and software designers for the industry. Not to mention, new automated sewing machinery that is computer-driven.