Made in the USA -- by robots

Robotic sewing machines help bring clothing manufacturing back to the US.

A quick peek at your clothing tag is a reminder that industrial sewing, like so many manufacturing sectors, has moved out of the US to take advantage of cheap overseas labor. There was a dramatic drop in the number of Americans employed in the apparel industry over the last 30 years. Could robots lure clothing companies back home?

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Even though most textile production has moved abroad, US consumer demand for cotton products, for example, remains strong, according to the US Department of Agriculture. It's just that now we import most of our clothing from countries like China and Bangladesh, where tees can be made for pennies on the dollar. While many people love the idea of clothing that is made in the US, outsourcing lowers operating costs so much that it's a tempting bargain for manufacturers and retail customers alike.

Now, automation is changing the equation. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and robotic sewing machines can streamline processes and drastically reduce labor hours, so in some case, it no longer makes sense to sew garments 10,000 miles away from the end consumer. The not-for-profit Reshoring Initiative offers a cost estimator to help corporations calculate the real P&L impact of reshoring or offshoring.

Sandy Montalbano D'Amico, Consultant to the Reshoring Initiative, tells ZDNet that companies like Nike and Adidas are using robotics to achieve a "local for local" business model. They are moving production closer to consumers in order to capitalize on current trends faster and reduce costs.

She explains, "The benefit of local for local or reshoring manufacturing is in the total costs. Offshore apparel manufacturing leads to high shipping costs, high carrying costs of large inventories and long lead times. Reshoring allows for smaller batches with more flexibility for customization, style changes and delivering the product to stores on time for consumers."

Atlanta-based robotics startup SoftWear Automation makes "Sewbots" that use patented computer vision systems to view fabric more accurately than the human eye so that every stitch is perfect. These robots sound exactly like something that will steal jobs from hardworking Americans.

Palaniswamy "Raj" Rajan, SoftWear Automation Chairman and CEO tells us, "Humans will always be involved in the manufacturing process, from managing [robots] to managing distribution centers or working with the spinning and weaving of fibers into fabrics. We estimate that setting up a Sewbot factory would create 50 to100 jobs upstream and downstream, in addition to the ones created within the factory itself."

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Sewbots stitch fabric together while human workers oversee the operation. (Image: SoftWear Automation)

The problem with sewing in the US isn't just the cost of labor; there is also a major lack of expertise in the field. People aren't exactly clamoring for the jobs that robotic sewing machines are taking. Sewing machine operators make an average of $12.42 per hour, or $25,830 per year, which is slightly above the poverty level for a family of four.

After two recessions and the offshoring trend of the 90s, the US industrial sewing manufacturing infrastructure is not robust enough to meet business needs. The Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) now has a sewing training initiative that partners companies with educational institutions to meet the need for skilled workers.

Magda Ronningen, IFAI Makers Program Supervisor, says, "Contract sewing manufacturers are experiencing a shortage of industrial sewing operators which is further complicated by an aging workforce at a time when training opportunities are also disappearing."

She adds, "Industrial sewing operators are in very short supply. I speak to companies across the country every week and the lack of sewing talent is really hurting business growth. The career entry points have disappeared and so have many of the college and technical school programs for industrial sewing."

According to data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 750,000 people were employed cutting and sewing garments in the US in 1990. Today, there are less than 100,000 Americans doing that type of work, but it's not the end of American fashion.

"There will always be artisans making small runs of high quality, handmade goods," Raj says. "Just like the invention of the light bulb didn't close down candle shops, bringing automation to apparel manufacturing will allow designers to focus on being artists instead of making high volume, staples for mass consumption."

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