Sometimes it takes an outsider to finally achieve something that’s stumped an industry for decades.
Seattle-based start-up Sewbo recently produced the world’s first robotically-sewn T-shirt and its founder Jonathan Zornow, a self-described inventor, has no background in apparel. Why it’s a big deal: Despite the widespread use of automation in other industries, robots can’t reliably handle fabrics, making Sewbo’s achievement a milestone in apparel manufacturing.
“I had no idea people were still making all of our clothes. I assumed all manufacturing was robotic and when I learned it wasn’t it seemed like a big problem,” Zornow told Sourcing Journal Friday.
After playing around with the idea for a couple of years, Zornow began focusing on Sewbo full-time in 2015. He discovered that by temporarily stiffening fabrics using polyvinyl alcohol—a water-soluble and non-toxic synthetic polymer that’s widely used in textile production already—conventional robots could create clothing as easily as if they were handling sheet metal. Afterward, the polymer is removed with a simple rinse in hot water, leaving behind a soft garment.
“The goal of the project was to use as much off-the-shelf technology as possible,” Zornow said, noting that apart from the industrial robot, which he rented and taught to operate a consumer sewing machine, everything was bought on Amazon.
“Programming [the robot] is really simple. To show it what you want it to do, you take it by the hand and move it through the air and it will record the motions,” he said, explaining that he did have to cut the pieces of fabric and show the robot exactly where each part would be. “Once you hit play it can repeat those motions very quickly.”
Though it did take a whole day to sew that first T-shirt, Zornow said that it could potentially work faster than a highly skilled seamstress.
“There are some questions that we still need to answer in terms of just how fast. In theory this could operate faster than humans because robots can be very decisive in their motions,” he said, noting that it could be an appealing solution for domestic manufacturers looking to lower costs and compete with factories overseas. “It’s a question of defining the capabilities and limitations and figuring out whether or not it’s cost effective for specific applications.”
Now that Sewbo has successfully proven its core concept, the start-up is hoping to expand its team and work toward commercializing its technology.
“We are talking with manufacturers so it’s possible that we may do our next step in somebody else’s factory and benefit from somebody else’s experience and working environment,” Zornow said. “However, what I think is more likely to happen, rather than asking a manufacturer to take that risk and integrate us into their assembly line, which is a hard sell, is that we will develop a trial assembly environment in our own workshop on behalf of a customer and work out the kinks there first.”
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