Stitching the Reigns of Robotics
By Ravi Lulla - Head IT - s.Oliver Asia Ltd
In the recent years, there has been an increasing inclination towards using robotics in production facilities and assembly lines. Based on the study and use of robots, robotics not only promises to boost productivity multifold, but when used to its maximum potential, it can even revolutionize a city’s employment and economics. As innovation invites more robots across industries, the boundaries of production continue to get stretched. The apparel industry is one of many that is looking to exploit the recent technological breakthroughs to build towards a more automated production.
Robotics encompasses the design, construction, operation and application of robots. The robots used for manufacturing are commonly termed as industrial robots and they have been increasingly used since the early 1970s. The robots have been most prevalent in aeronautical and automotive industries, followed by electronics. Industrial robots have helped standardize the process of manufacturing large-scale goods such as airplanes and cars, and mass producing them at breakneck speeds. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) in 2014, 98,900 industrial robots were sold to automotive industries, whereas 48,400 robots were used for electronics. In totality, 229,000 robots were supplied worldwide in the year, which was a growth of over 200 percent when compared to a decade prior.
" Given the constant evolution of mankind and its revolutionary products, the importance given to using robotics in production is unprecedented. "
Of the 229,000 industrial robots, only 289 had been summoned by garment manufacturers. Notably, most industrialists have stayed away from using automated machinery when making apparels. So far, robots have only been used for selective jobs like stitching; there is yet to be a robot that can process end-to-end manufacturing of a complete and saleable piece of clothing.
Seeing the high costs of being labor intensive though, industry stakeholders have been desperate for a solution; they are confident that a change is imminent. This is complemented by the natural instinct of humans to grow and innovate to solve problems, while making a contributive impact to their society. Given the ongoing accelerating change in technology, progressive rate of innovation, as well as the absolute need for increasing the economies of scale, analysts are anticipating
the ongoing fourth industrial revolution to bring widespread changes to enable automated end-to-end apparel production.
Over the past few decades, many reputable apparel brands have offshored their shoes and garment manufacturing to developing, or third world nations. To minimize their labor costs, their vendor’s clothing factories are installed in rural areas of countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India. Although these setups have reduced labor costs, it does not give the brands enough management, control or flexibility over their production.
The only way this is possible is to increase the automation and robots on assembly lines. In May 2016, Adidas, the popular German sportswear company, introduced its new facility called Speedfactory in Germany. Speedfactory primarily relies on robots and automations to manufacture shoes at a rapid rate. Seeing the positive results, the company has already announced its plans to set up more Speedfactory facilities in America and Western Europe in 2017. The motivation behind moving towards local automated production is not only the faster production rate, but it also ensures that the production occurs in close proximity to the retailers and consumers, thereby reducing the costs of goods transportation.
The implications of this development is manifold. As production shifts out of the developing countries, thousands of workers in those nations would inevitably lose their jobs. Since a large part of their economy and employment is driven by having factories, the government of such nations would be shaken up. However, such dynamic shifts have occurred throughout the past three industrial revolutions, and after the initial inertia, there are bound to be alternative employment or education opportunities for the redundant workers. Such a scenario is actually and already playing out year after year. Factory owners are complaining about difficulties in replacing older workers as the younger generation is no longer interested in manual low paying jobs in uncomfortable conditions. According to Softwear CEO, K.P.Reddy “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”.
The shift towards automation will particularly be beneficial to garment brands. Immediately, the companies will be rewarded with several economies of scale. Firstly, the scope of human error - which is likelier than machinery malfunctions - is practically eliminated, which reduces the costs of material wastes. More importantly, the speed of production is pivotal; the more shoes that get produced is likely to lead to more shoes being sold or rather more production efficiency, and therefore, increased profits all around. Besides the overall increased efficiency, researcher Peter Gorle also identified that robots can easily perform tasks that are difficult, dangerous, or costly for humans. On an average, it is estimated that 4 robots can be handled by one staff at a time.
Seeing the temptation to move towards automated assembly lines, researchers are striving hard to ensure the assembly lines in garment production are as automated as possible. In fact, on September 22, 2016, SewboInc, an American startup company, successfully used an industrial robot to sew together a complete T-shirt. Jonathan Zornow, from Sewbo, was proud to announce that it was the first time that a robot has sewn a complete piece of clothing. In order to achieve this, Sewbo stiffened the fabric to enable the robot to make the garment as if it was made from sheet metal. After the production and assembling, the garment then went through a softening process to ensure the T-shirt was soft. K.P. Reddy, CEO of Softwear, is another advocate hopeful of seeing more robotics used in garment production.
Given the constant evolution of mankind and its revolutionary products, the importance given to using robotics in production is unprecedented. Industry analysts and experts are equally hopeful of seeing the garment manufacturing industry more automated. Here unto, robotics has played peripheral roles to produce apparels. Having produced each part with flying colors, the robots are bound to take over the reins of garment production, stitching complete masterpieces with clockwork accuracy; or possibly even mankind if you believe Hollywood.