"Don't be afraid of robots–how automation will change the fashion industry" was the title of the last 'SI Talks' session during Munich Fabric Start. Here are some key statements.

The panel included several experts from the industry and sciences:
> Benjamin Baumann, product architect handling & machinery at robotic specialist Kuka, Augsburg/Germany
> Dr. Thomas Fischer, deputy director management research, German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research Denkendorf/ Germany
> Ebru Ozaydin, SVP marketing and sales, Artistic Milliners, Karachi/Pakistan, living in New York City/USA, expert in denim production and jeans manufacturing
> M. Sc. David Schmelzeisen, group leader additive joining technologies, ITA–Institute for Textile Technology, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen/Germany
> Jonathan Zornow, inventor/founder/CEO,Sewbo Inc., based in San Francisco/USA, develops sewing robots

Moderating the talk was Sabine Kühnl, editor-in-chief, SPORTSWEAR INTERNATIONAL

Benjamin Baumann (BB): The car and automotive industries are already benefiting from I4.0 by analyzing parameters and getting better in producing cars, while becoming more efficient. I4.0 can be useful for smaller entities because they benefit from standards that big groups of factories have achieved, for instance, through the standardization of some sensors and platforms.

Dr. Thomas Fischer (TF): Textiles play a special role in I4.0 because textiles can also be connectors and can be cyber physical systems by themselves. There can be integrated sensors and antennas for ID, on the one side. On the other side, we see the classical digital mass production for fashion is not fully digitized and to me I4.0 has a lot to do with digitization, digital product development and digital supported production. We are half way there because for complete digital engineering not all the steps have been integrated yet.

David Schmelzeisen (DS): We are not there yet as the textile supply chain is super fragmented. When you want to know about your basic material or where your yarn comes from it’s super difficult to access this information. It is also very difficult to share information and data–and information is pretty much what I4.0 is about. The second aspect is that in this industry players are very conservative, they think inside of their silos, don’t share knowledge and data are very difficult to access.

Jonathan Zornow (JZ): In the textile industry people are still doing most of the work. I4.0, instead, is about gathering data and linking the industry together. And to collect these data you need to take away efficiency from workers.

Ebru Ozaydin (EO): We are a vertically integrated company that produces denim and garments and employs 18,000 people. Currently I4.0 is more in the garment manufacturing, washing and sewing because textile is a very intensive-labor industry. For this while using robots activities we often need to combine it with the manual process. What we profited most from I4.0 is process control and collecting data about sustainability in transforming conventional production into more virtuous practices. We also use robots in the spinning process. We use big data and collect information from retail to adapt our production and meet the final consumers’ requests.


DS: Fiber and fabric production hardly involves any people. And it’s super cheap automation as a completely robotized spinning machine only costs €7,500, though these machines cannot share information. But if you go and look at cutting and sewing machines they cannot be much automated as they cannot handle textiles as a worker does.


JZ: Apart from a few exceptions robots are more or less advanced sewing machines, but they require the presence of a worker. They can assemble pockets, belt loops and even do complex operations like applying collars, but the fabric itself needs to be handled by a worker. And if the worker needs to take a bathroom break then the machine doesn’t run. And that’s an area we can improve on.


BB: Productive steps that are easy to automate are usually the ones that are not value adding. Workers are better than robots in sewing, seeing and feeling fabrics. And generally if the robot can do it either it hasn’t the capability, it is too slow or too expensive. In two to three decades robots might become more sensitive and could be able to separate and assemble different fabrics together.


DS: Men and robots will somehow collaborate in the future. This is the future for the fashion industry. Robots can take care of special tasks and–as a human–I can train them and outsource steps that are very repetitive or that actually I don’t like to do and I know am not very efficient. This way I can concentrate on quality and also value added process.


When manufacturers reach out they don’t want to talk about automation, they talk about the headaches of their workforce they need to recruit and train when they need thousands of workers just to fulfill the existing orders. From a manager’s perspective their main job is no longer making clothes but spending time recruiting people. The greatest appeal of robotics is basically making the job of the management a lot easier.


TF: In the last years I have seen three main developments: In so-called cheap labor countries the cost of work will increase. Fair transportation costs play a role. Speaking of circular economy we will have a lot of material back and there’s no need to ship in the Far East to be worked and then return here. For these reasons we need to rework old clothes here where the markets and the consumers are. This can happen in small regional production centers where we are able to have the materials and will have the recycling technology available at feasible costs. This way the regional personalized microfactories here in Europe can at least cover part of the demand.


TF: We are working at a project called “Retail 4.0” which brings together the consumer with the retailer and the producer. We can place a “microfactory” somewhere in the background of the point of sale and through digitized production you can produce rather quickly what he wants in a personalized way while he is having a couple of coffees. And this is a huge opportunity for fashion, because fashion is about color, design and expression and–a second important aspect–individual bodies. This is unique when compared with all other products as we all need personalized clothes.


EO: Think about the current situation in China and supply chains blocked because of Coronavirus. If people of my supply chain in Hong Kong can’t go to office, send me patterns nor produce and send samples to my customer, through microfactories–which they also call near-shoring–the problem can be solved.

We designed part of the Adidas microfactory project–especially for the sewing and knitting parts. It was an ambitious project with the aim to automize up to 100% of the process. Though in the end they decided to automize 40% and do the rest with humans. If we want to build these kinds of microfactories everything has to change– the machines, the layout of the factory and how you use the materials if you want to have them near to us.

DS: On a design perspective we need to rethink fast fashion on a different perspective. At the moment fast fashion is low quality, but from an engineering perspective way too high for only wearing it once. But if you think of 3D printed dress technology it would mean it has nothing to do with textiles as it hasn’t the mechanical properties we need for wearing it for long, nor can you wash it. But if you want to wear it only once for one evening you can. So you print it, you wear it for one evening and bring it back to someone who can make a new polymer of it and a new piece of cloth can be made out of it. It’s a new model. It’s not a classic textile anymore but it’s still fashion.


DS: We are studying a 4D textile project. It is a 3D one which evolves over time: by using stretch fabrics we prestretch them and then take away force from it in order to get a new function out of it. Nike has a good example as it created a T-shirt for running. When its back part gets wet it changes shape in a way that it creates a sort of flap through which moisture can be better expelled.


BB: It’s very difficult to say what a production facility will look like in two or three decades. A trend I see is that robots are getting smarter and more sensitive. Then they could more easily handle fabrics, put them together or separate them and by that feed the sewing machines.

Editor's note: This article runs in our current "Denim Sourcing Issue", #292. Please also check out the e-paper version for more information.

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