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This Automated Innovation Produces a T-Shirt Every 22 Seconds

If companies can get automation right, manufacturing one T-shirt could take 22 seconds and cost 33 cents.

In a welcome break from trade talk in favor of innovation, a panel on the opening day of Sourcing at Magic in Las Vegas Monday, highlighted where automation is taking the industry.

For one, automated sewing company SoftWear Automation’s Pete Santora, VP of sales and marketing, said, the future will be all about a concept it calls SewLocal, or moving manufacturing closer to the customer and all the way to the retail store if possible.

“People talk about reshoring, I think this is about shoring where the customers are,” Santora said.

SoftWear Automation, which counts Under Armour and New Balance among its customers and has worked with the Walmart Foundation through a collaboration with Georgia Tech, said most companies are far off from the factory of the future as they see it.

In savvy factories today, there are typically 3-D designers, design software, single piece flow, batch processes, and maybe a box at the end of the cutters for pieces to fall into before being carted off to individual sew stations where the seamstresses are.

“There’s lots of automation all the way through the factory and then literally, it just stops.”

Seamstresses, while necessary, will have to be used differently down the line if there’s any hope of bringing manufacturing closer to the consumer in a major way—especially when that consumer lives in the West.

“If you’re talking about the U.S. or Europe, you don’t have access to labor,” Santora said. “It doesn’t matter what you want to pay them. They don’t exist.”

Though U.S. President Donald Trump may have plans for American manufacturing’s resurgence, for apparel manufacturing at least, millennials don’t want to sew and steel workers who were out of jobs aren’t suddenly going to start sitting at sewing machines.

The factory of the future appears the only hope for any major resurgence. In it, work lines will be automated and seamstresses will be simulated. And with technology like SoftWear’s ThreadVision—which tracks individual threads in each fabric to keep things in line regardless of whether the fabric moves around—bots are doing even more to mimic their humans’ movements.

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With SoftWear’s SewHands, a robot head attaches to an existing sewing machine and can move fabric up and down, side to side, in keeping with how a seamstress would handle it. SewArms pick, place and sew product, and can reduce a process that takes a seamstress one minute down to a 26-second operation.

“It’s the ability to reduce needle up time that gives the greatest productivity gains,” Santora said.

With SewTable, a swarm of robots work together to do things like grab fabric, manipulate it, spin it around and hold onto it with enough pressure and tension while it’s being sewn, much like hands would.

But what was new for SoftWear at Magic Monday, is its idea of a Workline. With it, a sewing line is entirely automated and just one operator is needed to oversee things. The Workline, according to Santora, may be what the factory of the future looks like.

Workline workstations are clear, streamlined and highly efficient—producing one complete T-shirt in as little as 22 seconds. And with the number of eliminated operators, manufacturing costs come down considerably too. One worker operating the Workline way can produce 800,000 T-shirts in a day.

“The cost basis is about 33 cents per T-shirt,” Santora said. “The U.S. is the third largest manufacturer of cotton, but yet we don’t manufacture any T-shirts. So we’re basically using T-shirts as a microcosm of this industry.” Ninety-six percent of T-shirts are exported from other countries, and the U.S. consumes 30 percent of the world’s T-shirts, according to Santora.

The driving forces behind apparel companies’ efforts these days revolve around reducing time to market, reducing cost and reducing lead times. And if getting closer to where consumers are means more automation, upgrading factories to accommodate that won’t be a wish list item, but a must.