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Trendsetters: Stitching The Future

SoftWear Automation is moving as fast as its sewbots.

The Atlanta-based company, which manufactures automated sewing machines, could end up revolutionizing the world’s garment industry.

Its machines can be used by apparel companies for a multitude of tasks that are required to take a garment from concept to reality, including fabric handling and direct sewing. That’s good news, because the number of people skilled at sewing is shrinking with each year, and younger generations are typically not interested in replacing them.

“You’re creating job opportunities in different markets,” CEO Palaniswamy Rajan says. “The traditional seamstress in the U.S. is 56 years old. There are not enough people who want to become seamstresses.”

But that doesn’t mean it is taking jobs away from those who need them. Instead, the nature of the job is changing.

“People are managing the sewbots versus actually being the sewing operator itself,” he says. “It creates a whole new, different paradigm for manufacturing.”

The machines have the potential to help bring textile manufacturing back to the U.S. while creating higher-wage jobs for those supervising the sewbots’ work. It could also address garment worker exploitation that has occurred in other countries and help companies meet consumer demand for new fashion styles faster by facilitating a quicker delivery to market.

In the past, the main technical barrier to automation was feeding fabric smoothly – and accurately – through the machine. To address this, SoftWear Automation’s machines use high-speed photography, capturing up to 1,000 frames per second that are then interpreted by software to use the correct stitch at the right tension level. A robotic system grabs and positions each piece of fabric, using a vacuum suction to hold it in place.

Rajan says this technology allows for the “manufacture of apparel anywhere in the world.” And since the United States consistently is the third leading cotton producer in the world behind China and India, companies will be able to cut expenses tied to shipping products from overseas.

“With our technology, because we neutralize the cost whether you manufacture in the U.S. or overseas with our robots, we expect that the shift in economics will force people to come here because we still manufacture cotton,” Rajan says. “We are one of the largest cotton-producing countries in the world. So we have a lot of advantages that we can leverage by manufacturing locally.”

SoftWear Automation was founded in 2007 by former Georgia Tech professors who received a $1.25-million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and a Georgia Research Alliance grant. The company is also part of a Georgia Tech group that received a $2-million Walmart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund grant in 2014.

The innovative firm is growing fast. It moved out of the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), a Georgia Tech business incubator in Midtown’s Tech Square, and into a larger, 9,000-square-foot facility nearby in October 2015. Now, Rajan expects the company, which currently has 20 employees, will need to move again sometime this year to accommodate growth.

“Our innovation is happening at a very rapid pace,” he says. “We expect to grow our staff pretty rapidly over the next 24 months.”

SoftWear Automation’s clients include a large rug manufacturer in Georgia, a large automotive floor mat maker and a global T-shirt maker that produces 100 million T-shirts a year, Rajan says.

“We have other customers that are in different stages of rollout,” he adds.

SoftWear Automation’s sewbots can work with many “mainstream” fabrics, such as cotton and heavy fabrics like denim, but it is still testing knits and niche, luxe fabrics on the machines. The company continues to file patents on its technology, but “clearly our innovation backlog is very, very high,” he says. Still, Rajan expects the machines to be able to work with niche fabrics, including silk, in the next 24 to 36 months.

“In a few years, technologically, we’ll have the know-how on how to do it. It’s just a matter of prioritizing which markets we are going after first,” he says. “The vision and the direction that we’re heading in automating sewing technologies worldwide is something that we could really expand on, but in that space, there’s so many technical problems we can solve. In five years, we expect to be the dominant player in the industry.” – Andy Johnston

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