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Back WhatTheyThink: Sewbotics – The “Last Mile” in Automated Apparel Technology

The “last mile” is a phrase widely used in the telecommunications, cable television, and Internet industries to refer to the final leg of the networks that deliver telecommunications services to retail customers. It’s a phrase that comes to mind when thinking about the apparel design and production supply chain, which is becoming increasingly automated. In this case, the last mile would be the sewing process, which heretofore has remained minimally automated and still quite labor-intensive, often requiring skills that can be hard to come by in developed parts of the world such as North America and Europe. But that will all change if SoftWear Automation has its way. We spoke with Pete Santora, Softwear Automation’s Chief Commercial Officer, to learn exactly what that means.

WhatTheyThink:  Pete, tell us about Softwear Automation.

Pete Santora:  We think of ourselves like Tesla for sewing. We use machine vision to map fabric, and robotics to steer the fabric through the sewing process. We spun out of Georgia Tech after seven years of research and development working on projects with DARPA and the Walmart Foundation. SoftWear’s fully autonomous SEWBOT® allows manufacturers to SEWLOCAL™, moving their supply chains closer to the customer while creating higher quality products at a lower cost.

WTT:  I can understand Walmart, but why would DARPA be interested in this?

PS:  This is due to the Berry Amendment. As you can read on the U.S. Department of Commerce site, this is “a statutory requirement that restricts the Department of Defense (DoD) from using funds appropriated or otherwise available to DoD for procurement of food, clothing, fabrics, fibers, yarns, other made-up textiles, and hand or measuring tools that are not grown, reprocessed, reused, or produced in the United States. The Berry Amendment has been critical to maintaining the safety and security of our armed forces, by requiring covered items to be produced in the United States. With respect to textiles and clothing, the Berry Amendment has been critical to the viability of the textile and clothing production base in the United States.” The big issue here, in terms of apparel, is the risk associated with the relatively small number of seamstresses in the U.S.—only about 140,000. That spurred DARPA to issue grants for companies to look into this issue, and we were beneficiaries of some of those grants.

WTT:  Aside from DoD, what other factors are driving adoption of sewing automation?

PS:  Brands are looking to move to a Made to Measure or On-Demand production model where possible. This means that goods are ordered, paid for and then manufactured, turning the current process on its head. That eliminates the waste and cost associated with large inventories, and it also enables reshoring of apparel manufacturing, enabling faster time to market, an increased number of collections each year, and even cost-effective customization down to the individual level.

WTT:  What products are you focused on?

PS:  We started with the home goods market. Northern Georgia is the carpet capital of the world, and the vast majority of home goods consumed in North America are manufactured there. And we have now started to move into apparel—which was always the focus, but we had to work up to that point. The first is T-shirts and later we will move into jeans and pants, then dress shirts. We are more focused on adult attire than children’s since there are additional complexities to children’s clothes.

Read the full interview with our CCO Pete Santora, here.

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