Sewing is not a skill that robots come by naturally. Previous attempts to automate clothing construction have been only minimally successful — proof of concept, no more. But now it seems possible that robots might be able to make blue jeans.
The clothing industry
The clothing industry is the last holdout when it comes to automation. It is literally the only major industry that still relies entirely on human workers. And it is certainly a major industry, with $1.7 trillion globally this year.
The reason for this is simple: robots can’t work easily with fabric. Fabric moves in unpredictable ways. It doesn’t hold still like a sheet of metal or fiberglass, so it’s hard for a robot to construct anything with fabric.
One company has had some success with encasing fabric in a stiff coating which allows robots to sew T shirts (admittedly, not very well) and can then be washed off the fabric.
This adds an extra process and extra costs to T shirt construction, a task which already has such small margins that it can rarely be done in the United States.
But it could work for jeans. Blue jeans are already washed as part of their process. Using a stiffening agent to make it possible to automate construction and then washing the jeans to remove that substance could fit into the current workflow for manufacturing blue jeans.
Levi’s and Bluewater Defense LLC took part in early testing of the process. Levi’s has been investing in automation, but not in robots. They’ve put their automation investment into administrative tasks. Invoicing, merchandising, and other non-manufacturing tasks are being automated as part of what the company describes as “digital transformation.” They expect to save 20,000 human work hours this year.
“We’re ensuring teams across functions have the tools and services they need to work in a digital-first mindset,” they said in a blog post. “We are seeing not only an immediate reduction in operational costs but also increased employee satisfaction as teams can focus on higher-value activities.”
Levi’s was already using laser technology to “destroy” jeans — ripping them up in a strategic, design-focused way which took lots of human workers lots of time — and put them in. contact with toxic chemicals, too. Automating that process was an example of disruption by automation.
At this point, it’s not clear what role automation will play in producing Levi’s jeans going forward — or any other brand. But Bluewater Defense, a uniform company, suggests that it might be possible to bring construction of denim pants back to the United States with the right kind of robot support.
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