Spotlight: Automated sewing

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2017

Palaniswamy ‘Raj’ Rajan, CEO of SoftWear, USA, talks to Ellis Davies about the company’s Sewbots and automated worklines. 

Tell me about the company and your role at SoftWear.

SoftWear Automation is leading the disruption of the US$100 billion sewn products industry with next-generation sewing worklines for home goods, automotive mats, footwear and apparel. The Sewbots allow manufacturers to move their supply chains closer to the customer, while creating higher quality products at a lower cost. I have served as SoftWear’s Chairman for the past three years and stepped in as CEO in September 2016 with a focus on shifting the company from research mode to full production as we scale up. This has involved getting our engineering team to concentrate on achieving 90% uptime for all of our Sewbots.

How did SoftWear come to be?

In 2002, the Berry Amendment went into effect, requiring all military garments to be made in the USA. Complying with the rule proved challenging due to a lack of skilled labour available in the USA that only got worse as the current generation of seamstresses retired with no new talent to take their places. It was under these circumstances that the initial idea for SoftWear was born. Since then, we have grown our team to more than 25 engineers and developers, delivered our first products in the USA and are currently working on moving from worklines for home goods to launching our first fully automated workline solely for apparel production.

What machinery is used?

Our Sewbot worklines use a combination of patented high-speed computer vision and lightweight robotics to steer fabric to and through the needle. Using our worklines, customers are able to increase productivity while decreasing their overall defect rate. Closer proximity to the supply chain also shortens lead times and reduces competitive pricing pressure without the need for chasing cheap labour all over the globe. 

What materials can be used?

Most of the fabrics we work with are the kinds of wovens you see in home textiles. Think floor mats, towels, pillows and bedding. As we move into apparel, with our t-shirt line launching in 2018, we have begun working with cotton knits. Of course, as we add to our machine capabilities we will continue to add to our list of materials. 

Does automation allow for greater production?

Where we see a real increase in production is by reducing fabric-handling time, which accounts for a large portion of operator downtime during sewing operations. Combine this with our ability to run 24/7, 365 days a year, and it is easy to see how automation is able to allow for increased output. 

How does automation compete in terms of quality?

Because Sewbots use our patented, high-speed vision systems and robotics, which allow them to manage repetitive tasks with greater accuracy than humans, our customers have seen a decrease in overall defect rate. The products coming off of our Sewbot worklines are higher in quality than traditionally made pieces.

How is a workline operated?

Our worklines were designed with ease of operation in mind. We knew that for the most part, the same people working in factories today would be the ones trained to manage these machines, not engineers with advanced knowledge of technology. The machines are on the same level of technical difficulty as a smartphone, and this simplicity and ease of use makes it possible for one operator to manage up to four-to-five Sewbots simultaneously.

How much human involvement is needed?

Our systems are designed to have as little human interaction with the fabric as possible. Depending on the level of pre-existing automation and the end product, we are able to automate 80-90% of the production process. As automation evolves in the sewn goods industry we foresee factories where you are able to go from a roll of fabric to a finished garment that is packed and ready to ship without human touch.

What products can be produced?

Currently, all of our customers are in home goods and automotive textiles. Their machines are producing pillows, bath and car mats and towels that can be purchased at big box retailers across the USA. Our t-shirt line, which will be launching Q4 of 2018, will be our first move into apparel products. 

Why do you think automation hasn’t been widely implemented in textiles?

The fact that fabric is not rigid increases the complexity of automation many fold. Unlike the stiff metals you find in the automotive industry, fabric is lightweight, has stretch and is made to move as you move. All of these things make it tricky to automate. All past attempts at automating sewn goods production relied heavily on starches and clamps to stiffen the fabric and make it easier to manipulate. Remnants of this approach can be seen in current, operation-specific automation – focused on automating a particular process – found in factories today. These systems still require an operator to feed the machine and are not addressing some of the core issues being faced by the industry today, which can only be solved by full automation.

Are you working on any current projects of note?

We are working on fully automated worklines for mattress covers and tote bags that will be available next year in addition to our t-shirt workline. 


Crown moves into Southeast Asia

Crown Equipment, USA, has rolled out its QuickPick Remote Order Picking Technology in Southeast Asia. Quickpick is a glove that remotely controls a pallet truck using task-automating technologies to simplify workflow and improve the order picking process. 

Crown says that the system is easy to use, with a double click of a button embedded in the glove causing the pallet truck to simply move to the next picking location. The glove also includes controls for the horn and brakes for added safety. 

ComfortClick automates LEED v4 Platinum building

ComfortClick, UK, in partnership with Jung and SPHERA, has automated a building in South America with its bOS software, which has now obtained LEED v4 Platinum certification. This award includes a set of rating systems for design, construction, operation and maintenance of green buildings. 

The project was the first in Central and South America to receive the certification. ComfortClicks data logging and program tasks allow for energy savings by using energy consumption monitoring and automation. The systems can be controlled via Andriod, iOS or Windows apps, and can measure air quality, temperature, humidity and CO2. 

Coca-Cola invests in automated warehouse

Soft drink producer Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) has recently invested £38 million in an automated warehouse at its Sidcup, UK, factory. The company hopes that the investment will increase efficiency across its supply chain and contribute to a reduction in its carbon footprint.

The automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) installed at the warehouse will hold and automatically move 25,000 pallets, which will triple the site’s capacity. Products can now be delivered directly to customers from the factory, rather than via an off-site storage facility, which will save 10,817 road miles by heavy goods vehicles. 

Boeing collaborates with Georgia Tech

In a collaboration to implement automation in industrial application, Boeing and Georgia Institute of Technology, USA, have opened a new advanced development research centre at the Georgia Tech campus. The centre allows students and engineers to collaborate on various projects to develop factory automation solutions in aerospace. 

The facility will focus on using industrial robotics for machining and fabrication applications in the Boeing manufacturing process. The facility is part of Boeing’s longstanding support of the Georgia Tech campus. 

Sandvik develops new automation-enhanced trucks

Sandvik, Sweden, has introduced new automated intelligent mining haulage trucks that target areas of safety, productivity and profitability. The trucks can increase haulage production by up to 30%, Sandvik says. 

The company describes the new trucks, the TH551i and TH663i, as safer, more efficient and easier to maintain. They include an integrated weighing system to help operators secure a full payload on every trip. The trucks also have inbuilt data collection, which means that all related data can be displayed at any time. 

General Motors completes production of self-driving vehicles

General Motors (GM), USA, has finished production on 130 self-driving vehicles at its Orion assembly facility. The car in question, the Chevrolet Bolt, was first produced in January 2017, and GM intends to produce a test fleet of 180 cars.

The Bolt uses a LIDAR system, which scans the area in front of the car, and around corners for oncoming traffic. It also employs a range of cameras and sensors. The cars require a driver to sit behind the wheel, in case the need for human intervention arises. 

GM is set to roll out its test cars next month through Lyft in San Francisco and Scottsdale.