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Automation to Reduce Outsourcing in Apparel Manufacturing

In this age of disruption, where holoportation looks poised to render FaceTime outmoded, it’s hard to see exactly what the apparel industry will look like in a few years.

But one thing that’s certain: automation and robotics will play an increasingly major role in how apparel manufacturing operates.

At a panel titled, “Automation and Robotics—Present and Future Trends in Product Development,” at the opening of Texprocess Americas in Atlanta, Georgia Tuesday, a panel of disrupters discussed how technology is advancing the product development process.

“Technology is the invisible soul of the jeans industry. Nothing can change without technological innovation,” Jeanologia’s Rolando Sierra said. “But despite how much technology has been evolving, apparel has always been late to the party.”

Automation hasn’t made much inroads into the apparel industry before now because it was cost prohibitive, and in some cases, garments could be produced cheaper by a human in a low-cost country than it could by utilizing high-tech machinery. But now that costs for automation have come down and functions can be more flexible to accommodate varying customer needs, more companies will be able to adopt the technology.

At Jeanologia, whose clients include Levi’s, Marks and Spencer and Gap, laser was one of the tech solutions that helped reshape denim. The practice isn’t new, but new iterations are making more things possible. Laser has replaced the need for human hands in sandblasting and distressing, and can even create patterns on high-fashion denim.

E-flow technology, however, is where the industry appears to be headed. With the zero discharge machine, air is transformed into nano-bubbles, then finishing products and water create a bubble “skin” of sorts that transports the finishing properties, like softening or water repellency, to a garment.

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With e-Flow, Sierra said Jeanologia is able to save 95 percent of the water used in traditional jean production methods, 50 percent of the chemicals and 79 percent of the energy.

In short, according to the company: water is over, air is the future.

Further, slow is over and speed is the future.

Fast fashion’s retail takeover has made greater speed to market a top priority in global sourcing today, and increasing efficiency, namely in labor, will be key to staying afloat in the face of it, and could even mean less production gets outsourced.

“Today the U.S. is cost competitive and the gap in labor costs in narrowing,” said Frank Henderson, CEO of Henderson Sewing, an Alabama-based industrial sewing machine distributor. “So if we eliminate labor as a component of flexible textile products, then we can compete.”

And though labor won’t be completely eliminated, manufacturing jobs are ripe for automation because of their often repetitive motions.

Robots are already making pleats, sewing yoga pants, creating overlock towels, and sewing with two “hands” like a human and actually seeing, through visual recognition, what’s being sewn.

“Automated machines and robots will increasingly take over the routine jobs now held by workers,” Henderson said. That’s not to say that workers will be altogether eliminated, they’ll just be used for different functions, like managing machine operation or helping with programming processes.

The introduction of automation and robotics may initially spark concerns of relevance by workers currently performing those repetitive manufacturing tasks, but for retailers, the advancements should come as a relief as the workforce is aging and young people don’t want to work in sewing rooms.

As K.P. Reddy, with SoftWear Automation, a developer of robotic sewing technologies explained, “The current workforce is rapidly ending with no replacement options. The workforce might actually be going away.”

Existing workers are getting older and the incoming generation has considerably less interest in taking on the tasks of their forefathers. Factories also tend to be in rural areas, on the outskirts of cities, and the younger generation wants a more urban life.

More than hurting for available labor, the apparel industry is facing rising transportation costs, buyers are increasingly asking for customization, tailoring and unique products, and consumers want to place orders in the morning for goods that will be delivered in the afternoon.

Options are essential in retail today, and automation technologies are helping retailers deliver on those options at scale and for less cost. Which, in turn, could mean less functions will get outsourced to low-cost laborers if they can be done domestically, or otherwise close to the end consumer, at a cost that’s sustainable.

At SoftWear, machines can do anything from transferring fabric parts into a SewBot, or sewing robot, to monitoring the exact number of threads and making adjustments as needed for absolute precision sewing, and preventing distortion in the sewing process.

“We can see how technology is contributing to three main things,” Sierra said. “To lower the cost of producing goods, a more efficient process and to keep the quality at an all-time high.”