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Sewbots Could Make 1.2M T-Shirts Annually at New Arkansas Factory

Tianyuan Garments Company is redefining apparel manufacturing with its newest employees—sewbots.

On Friday, the Chinese clothing manufacturer announced that it will open a new garment factory in Arkansas next year, which will run primarily with the use of autonomous robots and a few human supervisors, Fast Company reported.

Once factory operations are in full swing, the 21 production lines are expected to produce 1.2 million T-shirts annually, at a total production cost that’s competitive with apparel companies using low-wage countries to manufacture garments. Tianyuan Garments Company is one of the first businesses to use the sewbots, which could advance apparel supply chains in coming years.

SoftWear Automation, an Atlanta-based company, developed the sewbots that will be used in Tianyuan Garments Company’s new factory. In 2012, researchers received a grant from the Defense Department’s technology innovation wing, DARPA, to work on the sewbot concept and form SoftWear Automation. Two years ago, SoftWear Automation began selling sewbots that could help produce bath mats and towels. The company’s newest robot fleet will be deployed in the new factory and has the capability of making many apparel items, including T-shirts and jeans.

[Read more on automated factories: The Robots Are Coming-And They May Pick Up Retail’s Pace]

Computer vision is the powerhouse behind SoftWear Automation’s sewbots. Each sewbot uses computer vision to analyze and watch fabric so they can move the fabric efficiently.

“What we did was approach it and look at it from how a seamstress actually operates. The first thing they do is use their eyes, and based on their eyes, they do micro and macro manipulations of the fabric with their fingers and hands and elbows and feet,” SoftWear Automation CEO Palaniswamy Rajan said. “So a robot replicates all of those functions.”

SoftWear Automation’s production lines are approximately 70 feet long and comparable to a typical factory line with seamstresses. Along the table, sewbots perform each step of making a shirt, including adding sleeves, sewing a shoulder seam and adding a label, while computer vision shows the sewbot where to move the material.

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T-shirts and jeans are SoftWear Automation’s primary apparel focus, since the sewbots could produce high volumes of these products. Even though the company is still working on the bots, Rajan said that luxury items, like bridal gowns, will still have to be made by humans because of their complex production processes.

Automated work lines, including SoftWear Automation’s sewbots, could also provide a host of benefits to companies worldwide.

Despite Asia’s cheaper manufacturing costs, worker abuse remains rampant and lead times are still lengthy. Incorporating robots could minimize the need to depend on cheap labor and promote faster turnarounds on orders. What’s more, operating automated factories in Europe and the U.S. could prompt low-wage countries to enforce better labor laws and provide garment workers with other career opportunities.

Even though there are concerns about robots harming human employment, the Arkansas factory will create 400 new jobs in the area. Although the sewbots will run most operations, three to five workers will be needed to supervise each production line and monitor logistics. SoftWear automation also said the sewbots could establish between 50 and 100 jobs in the future, whether it’s in factories or the automation-technology field.