When it comes to stitching together complex garments, dexterous human hands are still far superior to rigid robot arms.
Much of the garment production process is already automated, from picking cotton to spinning yarn to cutting clothes. Some specialist machines can even sew buttons or pockets. However, no commercial robot had been able to piece together all the different materials to create an entire item of clothing, like a pair of jeans or a t-shirt.
But last month, Jonathan Zornow, founder and sole employee of Seattle-based startup Sewbo, claimed a breakthrough: He says he overcame a common hurdle to clothing automation—the challenge of working with weak, flexible fabrics—and successfully used an industrial robot to sew together a t-shirt.
The 30-year-old former web developer took inspiration from the 3D printing industry, where water-soluble thermoplastics are melted and molded. He stiffened the t-shirt fabric by treating it with such a material, “making it easy for conventional robots to build clothes as if they were made from sheet metal,” according to a press release. Rinsing the article of clothing in hot water restores the fabric to normal.
During prototyping, Zornow has been using the collaborative Universal Robot, an off-the-shelf model priced at almost $35,000 that’s designed to safely work alongside humans or assist them. But any robot can be programmed to carry out the function, either by showing the robot what to do so it can imitate the process, or by creating specialized software. In the long run, the robot’s faster speeds and better accuracy would, in theory, make up for the set-up costs. Zornow claims that his technique could eventually be used for customizing and altering clothing on the spot to suit a customer’s preferences and dimensions.
In an industrial environment, a manufacturer could automate each stage: cutting the fabric, stiffening it, shaping it with high-frequency acoustic vibrations, stitching it, and then rinsing it back to normal.