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Automated Couture: Using Robots to Make Clothing

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Arkansas-based manufacturer using “Sewbots” to upend clothing industry’s production norms

by Chris Price

While manufacturing companies have long cited labor costs as a reason to move production out of the United States, Chinese clothing manufacturer Tianyuan Garments Co., which makes about 10 million garments a year for brands like Reebok and Armani and supplies sporting goods company Adidas with 90 percent of its clothes, established its most recent factory in Arkansas.

In an effort to shorten its supply chain, get its products closer to its consumers and, surprisingly, reduce costs, the company invested $20 million to purchase and retrofit a 100,000-square foot plant and began producing T-shirts in Little Rock earlier this year.

Under the name TY Garments, USA, the company was able to dodge notoriously high American labor costs by taking humans out of the equation. TY employs about 330 robots, designed by Atlanta-based Softwear Automation Inc., which use computer-guided assistance to perform each step of the T-shirt making process from arranging and cutting fabric, sewing seams, adding sleeves, and post-production quality inspection.

Softwear Automation’s chief commercial officer Pete Santora said TY USA’s Arkansas plant is the first to use Softwear Automation’s “sewbots.” He estimates the factory will be able to create about 23 million shirts a year at a cost of 33¢ per unit.

With 21 automated assembly lines at the Little Rock facility, TY is expected to be able to cut labor costs compared to traditional human-based production by 50 to 70 percent and simultaneously increase productivity more than 70 percent.

“When fully operational, the system will make one T-shirt every 22 seconds. We will produce 800,000 T-shirts a day,” Tianyuan chairman Tang Xinhong, said in a press release announcing the creation of the Little Rock facility. “Around the world, even the cheapest labor market can’t compete with us.”

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SoftWear’s sewbots use robotic arms and vacuum suction to lift, place and hold fabrics in place under the watchful eye of a patented machine vision system, which uses a specialized camera capable of capturing more than 1,000 frames per second in concert with image-processing algorithms to detect needle placement to within half a millimeter of accuracy. The robot’s vision and real-time analysis allow it to adjust and properly arrange fabric with micromanipulators in a similar manner that a seamstress would adjust fabric before it goes into a sewing machine.

It took Softwear Automation, founded in 2007 by a group of engineers from Georgia Tech, seven years to develop the first sewbot, which made bathmats and towels. Funding for the automated sewing line came from the Walmart Foundation and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which awarded the company a $1.8 million grant to help develop the technology because the military is required to buy materials made in the United States.

While the clothing industry has been slower to automate compared to automobile and electronic manufacturers, the successful creation of the sewbot is expected to have repercussions around the world, including upending production in central and southeast Asian countries where manufacturing has previously relocated for cheaper, less technologically-skilled labor. While current sewbots are geared for making T-shirts, Softwear Automation’s leadership believes its machines will be able to produce a dress shirt with a breast pocket, which takes about 78 separate steps, within the next five years.

Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, says the state negotiated with Tianyuan for a year before the company decided to locate its automated factory in Little Rock. Arkansas’ central North American location, proximity to 60 percent of the U.S. population, and economic incentive program helped the state land the facility. The garment company received roughly $3.2 million in incentives to come to the state, including infrastructure assistance, money for training, and as much as a 65 percent reduction on property taxes at the facility, which could total as much as $1.6 million annually. Once fully operational, the company expects the plant to create 400 jobs with an average pay of $14 an hour. It is currently hiring, offering a starting pay of $10 an hour.

Three other Chinese companies, have joined Tianyuan in locating facilities in Arkansas. Combined, they are investing $1.4 billion in the state and hope to create as many as 1,520 jobs. Shandong Ruyi Technology Group Co., is developing a $410 million automated factory that will spin cotton into yarn in Forrest City, Sun Paper announced it would build a $1 billion pulp mill in Arkadelphia and Pet Won Pet Products is spending $5 million on a new 28,887-square-foot facilityto create pet treats in Danville.

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