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The Robots Are Coming-And They May Pick Up Retail’s Pace

Apparel supply chains could be giving way to robots in the future.

Pressed by demanding consumers and the accelerated fashion cycle, brands and retailers are considering robots as a way to ramp up their production and fulfillment operations. Although many aren’t completely jumping on the robot bandwagon yet, experts predict that demand will increase over the next few years as the retail landscape continues to take on a high-tech face.

According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), global purchases of robots, including robotics-related hardware, software and services, are projected to reach $97.2 billion in 2017 and $230.7 billion in 2021. Manufacturing-related industries, including apparel, are expected to purchase robotics products and services the most this year with a spending total of approximately $54.6 billion.

Some companies have already dabbled in back-end robotics. From installing automated machines to equipping workers with body-protecting exosuits, these businesses are pioneering a new era where robots could slash traditional lead times, generate better products and streamline fulfillment tasks.

Production robots

Automation is already transforming production lines across a variety of industries. Softwear Automation, an Atlanta-based machine vision startup is shaking up production with Sewbots for automotive, apparel and footwear manufacturers.

The company currently offers three patented Sewbots, including the Lowry, the Budger and the ASM. Lowry is an overhead system style pick and place robot that requires minimal hardware changes and uses vision for high product variability. Budger is a robotic ball that works with other similar machinery to transport fabric. ASM is an automated sewing machine that sews without an operator and helps streamline apparel construction for materials, like knits, that may distort easily.

All robots use Threadvision, Softwear Automation’s patented machine vision technology that maps and tracks the weft and waft of the fabric and helps with navigation, in addition to Qualsight, another machine vision technology, that helps with color, shape and quality identification.

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When compared to traditional apparel production, Sewbots provides time and monetary savings. For example, the company’s T-shirt workline produces a T-shirt every 22 to 26 seconds depending on the size and only requires one person to operate it. Softwear Automation’s digital workline also requires one person to run it, since it has lean manufacturing built into the process. Cost investments and savings could average a one to two-year payback in the U.S. and a three-year payback in China.

Pete Santora, VP of Softwear Automation, said brands are highly interested in the robots because they can bridge the gap between their supply chains and consumers.

“If you can make goods closer to the end consumer, then they [brands] are incredibly energized to revisit what it means to make their products,” Santora said. “Manufacturers are also interested because they don’t want to die.”

[Read More on the Robotics Takeover: Chinese Factories Ramp Up Spending on Robotics Amid Major Automation Push]

Automated fulfillment

At a time when retail is in a rut, many companies are turning to robotics to help streamline inventory and fulfillment operations as well. With robots working on back-end operations instead of humans, retailers can focus their budgets on in-store operations and improving the consumer experience.

With a system like RoboSupplyChain from Redwood Software, stores can streamline processes across supply chains, including production, warehousing, and operations planning, enabling them to better deliver on consumer expectations.

“Robots can deliver a monetary advantage in terms of cost of operations and efficiency, but the true value is in delivering service levels that exceed expectations as well as ensure optimal availability of stock at the right places across the supply chain. This has a direct influence on revenues and working capital,” Redwood Software chief of staff Neil Kinson said. “In a culture that demands instant gratification, the only way to profitably deliver expectations is to be as efficient as possible.

Benefits of RoboSupplyChain include connecting critical applications, managing planning, inventory and point of sale processes, and maintaining purchase order management and order tracking.

Kinson says with optimal use, his company’s automated system would handle 100 percent of companies’ manual tasks, freeing them up to manage the tasks in house and focus on scaling the business. And the investment has a fairly quick payoff. “We would typically look to see a return on the robotic investment within 6-12 months of implementation, with benefits that are tangible to the top and bottom line,” he said.

And though much has been made about technology stealing jobs, in some cases robots are also aiding workers in their everyday tasks. Retailers like Lowe’s, are piloting robots for inventory workers.

In April, Lowe’s and Virginia Tech co-developed an advanced wearable robotic suit for fulfillment workers. Dubbed exosuits, these devices protect employees against muscle fatigue and injury on shifts. The exosuit absorbs energy and delivers it back to the workers’ body, enabling them to exert less force when they lift boxes. While the workers bend and stand, the suit’s carbon fiber helps the workers bounce back up without difficulty, allowing them to accomplish more at work without hurting themselves.

Dr. Alan Asbeck, a Virgina Tech professor who led the Lowes and Virginia Tech robotics experiment, said these robots are not a threat to human jobs, but an opportunity to accomplish more on the back-end.

“The robots aren’t actually taking away jobs, they are helping the employee give more. Our exosuit does not replace people, I don’t think you can replace people with robots,” Dr. Asbeck said. “The wearable robot is actually very important to help people do their jobs efficiently without getting injured.”

Safety challenges 

Although companies are bridging the gap between production and fulfillment and robots, there are still hurdles to overcome.

Safety is a concern with incorporating robots and humans in the same space. Most factory robots only know how to move from one point to another and are unaware of the environment around them. This could lead to injuries and even deaths if robots aren’t equipped with the right hardware to stop their physical movements.

Dr. Asbeck said people are trying to provide robots with sensors, while coming up with tasks to make them more compliant in production facilities.

“The trend now is to try to give the robots sensing, so the robot can tell a 3-D image of how far away things are in the world, recognize people in the way and stop before that happens,” Asbeck said. “The second challenge is coming up with tasks for the robot that are simple enough for the robot to do with the intelligence and manipulation capability that is possible today.”

As robotics technology evolves, it will accelerate Industry 4.0—an era where apparel production could be fully automated, Softwear’s Santora said. He said that as it evolves, the industry needs to be more open to this new kind of technology.

“I don’t think we can underestimate how big of a culture change has to happen with the idea of connected devices and factories with robotics. A lot must happen culturally for brands and manufacturers to understand what this process flow is going to be,” Santora said. “The major cultural change is going to be to stop relying on people to try and fill the gaps in the manufacturing process.”