US-based firm SoftWear Automation has announced trials of a machine that can make up to 1,142 Tee Shirts in an 8 hour shift, as many as 17 human line workers. And of course machines such as these can work 24-hours a day, do not need breaks and holidays, and do not raise the same ethical concerns as human workers. One of the key breakthroughs is the ability of the Sewbot to handle relatively stretchy, knitted fabrics, using machine vision to guide the fabric as it moves around to make sure seams stay straight.
OK, tee shirts are a relatively simple construction, but the firm has moved on from pillow cases, to now being able to make most of a pair of jeans. The pace of development in AI, visual recognition and materials handling means that it won’t be too long before the vast majority of high volume, repetitive garments are manufactured locally at a price that beats offshore volume manufacturing, freight and duty costs.
So what, Sewbot?
This type of technology will have a huge effect on global commerce, as it becomes cheaper to produce close to the market than it is to manufacture in the Far East and import, with the associated freight and duty costs. A return to manufacturing in the UK for example, but with comparatively low employment needs and more compact space requirements. And for the low cost labour countries, a massive loss of employment as local semi-skilled roles are replaced by robot labour closer to the market. There will still be a market for sewing more complex, low volume products but even this can be expected to decline, albeit over a longer timescale.
Reduced international freight might be another casualty, although this would have a number of green/carbon benefits with lower garment-miles. And a return to local manufacturing may also impact other supporting industries, weaving and knitting locally may become more viable, as well as component production closer to point of use.
And what about design-led, branded companies? Manufacturing locally can give them the speed to market that fast fashion needs, without the high labour costs, skill shortages and low volume of current UK producers. In some ways, the circle will be completed in the next few years, having gone from UK Manufacturing => Import & distribution => Multi-Channel => UK Manufacturing in a cycle lasting 40 years or so. And what comes next? No matter what the future holds, STYLEman ERP, PLM, WMS, BI and Mobile.will be ready to support your business in the future.