Five years ago, retired Georgia Tech automation professor Dr. Steve Dickerson was getting ready for a seminar on the future of robotics. In preparation, he asked what was the biggest need in robotics today? The answer came quickly – automation of the garment industry.
To the Lowest Cost Provider Go the Manufacturing Contracts
Dickerson, a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur, grew up in Commerce, Georgia, where at one time there were three sewing operations. Today, most sewing is done overseas, where manufacturers have sought cheap labor. Pricing pressures are so intense that clothing manufacturing has moved from China to countries with even cheaper labor like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam. Dickerson plans to change that trend, and bring garment manufacturing back to the United States.
Dickerson, who co-founded SoftWear Automation, Inc. with Dr. Wayne Book, envisions technicians specializing in robotics supervising an entirely automated process, which will replace the need for seamstresses in factories and make the United States competitive in the garment industry again.
According to Plunkett Research, Ltd., in 2012, America imported more than $100 billion in textiles and apparel, while exporting only $22 billion. “In order to manufacture in the U.S., [you] have to be automated,” Dickerson says. “[Businesses] have to eliminate direct labor to make it profitable.”
Old Problem; New Solution
The loss of U.S. apparel manufacturing is not a new problem. In the 1970s and 1980s, government agencies recognized the issue and began developing projects to bring it back. These efforts failed in large part because an economical way to bring the industry back remained elusive — until now. In 2012, SoftWear Automation received $1.2 million from the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is required by law to purchase military garments made in the United States.
SoftWear Automation’s robotics focus on more than just sewing. In place of seamstresses, the system will guide fabric through machines and transferred from one machine to another.
According to Bill Lockhart, CEO of SoftWear Automation, the automated process will “enable the cutting and sewing based on a vision concept . . . at costs less than today’s offshore costs.” He notes that automation has successfully been implemented in the U.S. automobile industry, with workers supervising labor done by machines.
Frank Henderson, CEO of Andalusia, Alabama-based Henderson Sewing Machine Co. Inc., sees great potential in SoftWear’s novel approach to revolutionize sewing. “[The] digital revolution now enables us to accelerate the innovation cycle, drive productivity, and irreversibly transform businesses in the industry and the economy,” Henderson says.
The concept of using a camera-based technology tool to count stitches and feed that information back to the computer has never been approached before, Henderson explains. Henderson sits on SoftWear’s Board of Directors as well as its Industrial Advisory Board. “Robotics can fill the gap of skilled labor shortage that exists,” he explains. “I believe in the technology and development [of SoftWear] and we as a company have invested in this.”
Lockhart says an alpha version of the robotic sewing machine is expected in the summer, while the prototype for a material-handling robot is expected in the fourth quarter of this year. SoftWear Automation anticipates its first fully-automated production line will be in the works within two years.
The company says it is actively interviewing strategic partners in both finance and technology.