How are Robots Improving Garment Manufacturing?

The global demand for clothing has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Factors like the growing global population, emergence of fast fashion and increase in global income are all driving customers to buy more clothes (and shop more often).

Like many other industries, the garment industry has struggled to keep up with growing demand in the past few years.

Soon, new garment manufacturing automation technology could change this. New robots and automated systems may transform the industry, helping it to meet demand and adapt to a changing market.

automation in garment manufacturing

Overcoming Barriers to Automation in the Garment Industry

Garment manufacturing has, traditionally, been slow to adopt automated solutions compared to other industries.

While a garment manufacturing plant may rely on robots or fully-automated machines for certain kinds of work — like printing textiles and cutting fabric — many tasks essential for manufacturing clothes, like sewing, have proven notoriously difficult to automate.

Because fabric can stretch, fold and warp as it is worked, machines can struggle to work with it effectively. While workers can adapt to a fabric’s stretchiness or tendency to fold, machines may not properly move or handle fabric, causing them to make mistakes or damage raw materials.

Fabrics and textiles that are particularly flimsy, flexible or prone to damage can also be especially difficult for machines to work with. Because many manufacturers create more than one type of garment, machines will also need to flexibly shift from one type of garment to another.

Some experts and industry observers have written off the possibility of major automation in the industry altogether due to these challenges. New robots and automation technology, however, appear to be changing this — and could soon help to close the garment industry’s “automation gap.”

New Robots in Garment Manufacturing

One of the best-known examples of new garment robots is the SewBot from SoftWear automation. The SewBot is effectively a garment work table that combines conventional sewing machines with complex sensors and a vacuum system that repositions fabric as needed.

The system’s sensors allow it to track pieces of fabric as they move. If a piece of fabric stretches or shifts out of place, the machine can adapt, shifting the fabric’s position to minimize mistakes and continue working. In practice, the robot attempts to mimic how a seamster or seamstress moves and handles fabric as they sew, reducing the risk of mistakes.

Robots like the SewBot could soon supplement labor or help automate sewing at major garment manufacturing facilities.

Other, novel garment robots could help to automate similar tasks. For example, new 3D knitting machines enable a process called “3D seamless knitting” that can help businesses to create knitwear that offers a better fit or improved breathability.

A handful of major fashion retailers, including UNIQLO, are already using these machines for new lines of knitted sweaters and activewear. Because knitting garments is such a labor-intensive process, automating the manufacture of knitwear could help boost productivity and slash manufacturing costs.

Smart Technology and Additive Manufacturing in the Garment Industry

The garment industry is also benefiting from new technology that helps to solve industry-specific problems. For example, textiles, raw materials and finished garments can be vulnerable to mold, especially when shipped or stored in a humid environment. Storing garments or raw materials in the right environment prevents mold growth and can reduce product loss.

With new technology, garment manufacturers and warehouses can more effectively monitor and manage the environmental conditions of garment storage.

Using smart monitors that track temperature, humidity, moisture and other environmental factors, managers can identify environmental conditions that are perfect for mold formation. These monitors are connected to the internet and function 24/7, meaning that they can notify managers the second they detect environmental conditions outside of a preset safe range.

Once alerted, managers can take corrective action to save garments from mold damage, or move them to a better storage environment. These smart sensors are already being used in the food and beverage industry, where they play a similar role in preventing spoilage.

Other devices could open entirely new approaches to garment manufacturing. With 3D printers, for example, it can be possible to print new textiles or entire garments entirely from scratch. While the technology is not used at scale in garment manufacturing yet, researchers have used 3D printing to print garments and create textile patterns.

The same technology could also help manufacturers more easily create smart textiles — advanced textiles that offer unique features, like patterns that respond to smartphone commands.

As 3D printing technology becomes more sophisticated, it could even allow manufacturers to skip entire garment manufacturing tasks, like sewing, that have prevented automation in the past. Manufacturers could also use 3D printing to move the prosecution of raw materials — like fabric — closer to where they are used. By manufacturing fabric in-house with a 3D printer, a manufacturer could potentially save on both sourcing and transporting raw materials.

New Robots May Help Transform Garment Manufacturing

The garment manufacturing industry faces challenges like rising demand and supply shortages. While the industry has traditionally been slow to adopt automated solutions, new technology could make automating garment manufacturing much easier.

Robots that can perform tasks like sewing, knitting and cutting may automate tasks that usually require human labor. Manufacturers can also benefit from new technology, like smart sensors, that monitor important manufacturing and logistics processes.

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