Large clothing and technology companies, including Siemens AG and Levi Strauss & Co., are developing robots to make clothes. The process of using robots or computers for human work, known as automation, has raised concerns about jobs for many people around the world.
Eugen Solowjow heads an automated clothes manufacturing project at a Siemens lab in San Francisco.
"Clothing is the last trillion-dollar industry that hasn’t been automated," he said.
The worldwide clothing market is estimated to be worth $1.52 trillion, the independent research group Statista says.
Supply chain issues
The idea of using robots to increase manufacturing in the United States grew more popular during the pandemic. COVID-19 interfered with supply chains around the world, highlighting the risk of using distant factories.
But moving clothing manufacturing back to Western markets, including the United States, is a sensitive issue.
Many clothing companies are unsure about publicly discussing automation. Such reports would cause public concern that automation will take jobs from workers in poor countries.
One industry inventor, Jonathan Zornow, said he has received online criticism, and a death threat, in connection with his work.
Sewing - the act of using a needle and thread to make clothes - is especially difficult to automate.
Robots do not have the fine touch skill that human hands do. Robots are getting better, but it will take years to fully develop their ability to handle fabric, said five researchers questioned by Reuters.
But current research efforts are also looking at doing just enough work by machine to close the cost difference between U.S. and foreign factories.
Work at Siemens grew out of efforts to create software to guide robots that could handle all types of materials, such as thin wire cables, said Solowjow. He added that researchers soon realized one of the best targets for automation was clothing.
Siemens worked with the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute in Pittsburgh. They identified a San Francisco company with a promising way to deal with the fabric problem. The startup, Sewbo Inc., hardens, or stiffens, fabric with chemicals. The hardened fabric is then similar to other material robots can handle, like metal for example. Once the robots finish sewing the piece, the clothing is washed to remove the chemical.
"Pretty much every piece of denim is washed after it’s made anyway, so this fits into the existing production system," said Zornow, Sewbo’s inventor.
This research effort widened to include several clothing companies, including Levi’s and Bluewater Defense LLC, a small U.S.-based maker of military clothes. They received $1.5 million in financing from the ARM Institute to experiment with the technique.
There are other efforts to automate sewing factories. Software Automation Inc, a startup in Georgia, has developed a machine that can sew clothing by pulling the cloth over a special table, for example.
Sanjeev Bahl, who opened a small jeans factory called Saitex in downtown Los Angeles two years ago , has studied the Sewbo machines. He is preparing to set up his first experimental machine.
At his factory in September, he said that many sewing jobs are ready for a new process.
“If it works,” he said, “I think there’s no reason not to have large-scale (jeans) manufacturing here in the U.S. again.”
I’m John Russell.
Timothy Aeppel reported on this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
texture – n. the way that something feels when you touch it
supply chain -- n. the companies, materials, and systems involved in producing and delivering goods
thread -- n. a long, thin piece of cotton, silk, etc., used for sewing
handle -- v. to manage or control (something) with your hands
stiffen – v. to make (something, such as cloth) difficult to bend or move
fabric – n. woven or knitted material
denim – n. a strong usually blue cotton cloth that is used especially to make jeans
scale -- n. the size or level of something especially in comparison to something else