When the Atlanta-based textile-equipment manufacturer SoftWear Automation launched Lowry, its line of advanced sewing robots, it expected American cut-and-sew factories to be among is biggest customers. That’s why it was surprised to find that a large number of the manufacturers interested in its technology were based in low-cost labor markets like India, China and Bangladesh—the very countries the U.S. had been losing business to since the ’90s.
“Most of it is tied to the fact that, like Western countries, they are also having trouble finding and retaining skilled seamstresses. Millennials the world over are moving to city centers and are generally uninterested in factory work,” SoftWear CEO K.P. Reddy said. “Because of the exodus of sewn product manufacturing jobs to lower income countries decades ago, American manufacturers lack access to skilled seamstresses with the capability to produce a high quality garment at an affordable price. What’s interesting about this problem is that India, Central America and China are now experiencing the same issue.”
SoftWear’s solution could allow companies to chase capability, not lower labor costs. Lowry’s “sewbots,” for instance, can be used by apparel companies for fabric handling, pick and place operations and directing sewing, thereby eliminating the need for seamstresses.
Reddy added, “Companies realize that if they can be closer to their customer, they can stop financing raw materials, win more business, expand product lines and adapt quicker to what people want. Having the ability to produce at scale locally will allow garment manufacturers to quickly adapt to these market needs and compete more effectively.”
That’s not to say, however, that automation won’t bring back jobs to the U.S.; they just won’t be the same ones that left in the first place.
“As it stands, the average age of a skilled seamstress globally is well into their late 50s, with most of them being within five years of retirement age. There is no pipeline of young talent in place ready to replace them,” Reddy continued. “From a robotics and automation perspective, we have seen that these younger workers are taking a tremendous interest in learning about our machines so that they can move from low-wage, less-skilled work into higher-wage positions. At the end of the day, you need someone to program and maintain the machines and there is a strong pipeline of Millennials who are eager to take those jobs.”
But some kinks still need to be ironed out before the apparel industry can embrace full automation. For one, the technology needs to be able to handle the wide array of fabrics, operations and productions in the market.
“One womenswear manufacturer can have upwards of 200 SKUs in a range of fabrics and sizes that rely on a host of operations to go from cut pieces to assembled garments,” Reddy said, adding that SoftWear is currently working to increase its capabilities around fabric handling. Once that box is checked, he said, “I do not see anything standing in the way of the fully automated factory of the future in the next five to 10 years.”