Layoffs, automation or down-sizing related to IT industries are the most buzzing words, extending their extent to other high-precision manufacturing sectors like automobile, pharma etc. Thus, became the most talked about topics in the recent weeks.
It’s a problem an increasing number of people seem to be grappling with, as they find themselves victims of layoffs, automation or downsizing. Well in the time, Apparel companies failed to adapt to the last decade’s digital revolution. Instead of focusing on how clothing is made, they only focused on improving e-commerce and marketing strategies.
Automation — or the creation of technology systems that eliminate the need for humans to perform certain tasks — is set to transform the global economy.
According to a January 2017 report released by the McKinsey Global Institute, tasks are likely to be automated by 2055 — from predictable physical activities to data collecting and processing. The industry that is most likely to be affected includes manufacturing and retail. It’s no surprise, then, that fashion is destined to be irrevocably reshaped by automation.
Apparel production, especially for fast fashion requires expensive machinery and timely delivery at a very low price. With such challenging margins, companies are forced to seek out the lowest wages possible and are unlikely to invest in new technology. Even China is racing to keep up with increasing outsourcing to Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia due to the rising cost of labor.
This is despite the sewn-products industry being worth $618 billion this year, according to Ibisworld’s Global Apparel Manufacturing report. 
The apparel manufacturers are faced with the challenges of designing fashionable garments with multiple styles in short runs, improving delivery speeds, achieving flexibility, versatility and ensuring consistent quality. They also have to produce clothing cost effectively for a market which is supplied largely from countries with very low wage rates.
Most of the works in industries are carried manually but to sharpen the competitive edge the industry must necessarily invest in automation to meet the global standards. At a certain point, the hunt for cheaper and cheaper labor must come to an end. Technology is the only way out.
Besides these broad advantages, there are many more benefits of using automation. Energy saving, less spare parts, less maintenance cost, less space requirement in the production line, reduced handling, better WIP control, easy production accountability, reduced alteration etc. to name a few.
It does have a different view to express the urge for the automation in the sewn good manufacturing industry. As these industries moved from high-wage labor markets such as the United States and Europe to low-wage labor markets, brands went from being experts in their craft to marketing and merchandising machines, being completely disconnected from their manufacturing operations. Development that was once overseen by in-house teams with an advanced knowledge of production processes now is performed a world away and managed by contract manufacturers. These manufacturers often place high piece minimums on orders and modify designs to streamline production. This new paradigm restrains brand creativity and has created a situation where one misstep in trend forecasting can result in millions of dollars lost in inventory.
“Sewbots” — or automated sewing machines — could drastically reduce the need for human garment workers.
The “sewbots,” or sewing robots, reduce production costs, increase quality, cut lead times and allow brands to take back control of their manufacturing process.
In sewbots, there is a capability to change how apparel is made.
Sewbots may be the answer to hunt for the swarm of cheaper labors and delivery of better quality more efficiently than humans. Benefits to automation include more reliability and fewer variations in stitch quality. When it goes in the production environment, it will be at the same speed as a human sewer. Unlike a human sewer, however, robots do not need breaks and are rarely subject to error. That is what Sew bot can do for the apparel assembly.
It will be a very long time, if ever before things are 100% automated. Fabric production, garment dyeing, and finishing are already highly automated as compared to the garment manufacturing process. There is still human labor involved, “but they’re able to leverage machines to achieve incredible productivity, to the point where the labor cost to manufacture a yard of fabric is usually at a minimum.”
Innovators are working diligently to increase its machines’ capabilities around the wide array of fabric types and operations that go into producing stock keeping units for manufacturers in home goods, automotive textiles, apparel, and footwear markets. As with any new technology, automation in sewing still has some hurdles to overcome before robots fully replace seamstresses.
But there is another side to this whole lot of automation in the industry. Robotic automation might be the answer to a lot of things. People also feel that automation will eliminate the deplorable conditions of the garment workers in poor countries.
But, what is the alternative for the workers who support their entire families and will be laid off the jobs because of this automation?
So, the bottom-line question that needs to be answered is whether a few robots will exempt the suffering that unemployment will bring to these workers? Should an attempt be made to equip the hunger and homelessness that might follow the closing of the factories?
Maybe it’s time to think not just about automation and the cheaper clothing that will follow, but also about the major garment force that will lose its source of income.
Maybe it’s time for some compassion towards the workforce. It is the one thing the robots can’t manufacture.
1. Fenigsohn, G (2016, August 17th) The Sewbots Are Coming… https://thetechnoskeptic.com/sewbots/
2. Kansara, V (2017, May 16th) The Sewbots Are Coming! https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/fashion-tech/the-sewbots-are-coming
Heera Kumar is a Consultant in Projects division of Threadsol. A graduate from NIFT Gandhinagar in Apparel Production, he has over 7 years’ experience in apparel manufacturing, project delivery, and management in apparel manufacturing sector. His key skills lie in the field of Apparel Manufacturing Operations.