planet money
The podcast features inventor Steve Dickerson discussing his invention.

Planet Money Discusses Garment Sewing Robot

WASHINGTON—Hosts of the podcast Planet Money Noel King and Jacob Goldstein discuss a sewing robot designed to manufacture garments and uniforms on a recent installment of the show. The podcast features retired Georgia Tech professor Steve Dickerson explaining the history and goals of the robot he developed with other Georgia Tech professors with the hosts.

The initial idea for the robot, Dickerson explains, came from an open call in 2011 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for ideas about manufacturing. DARPA’s main focus is technologies centered around national security, which is why Dickerson’s concept seemed like a stretch.

“No one at DARPA thought they were going to get a proposal for automatic sewing,” says Dickerson in the interview.

Dickerson pitched his idea to DARPA by tying it back to the Berry Amendment. The amendment is a statutory requirement by the U.S. government that requires military uniforms be strictly American made. Dickerson’s proposal yielded a $1 million grant from the agency.  

In addition to developing a new technology for military uniform production, the robots now act as a potential stateside, industrial solution for sewing garments, manufacturing apparel, and possibly revive the once-booming domestic garment industry.

Now with multiple versions of the robotic sewing mechanisms, or "sewbots" in production, automation firm SoftWear tests the robots out at a headquarters in Atlanta, refining how the robots grasp, fold, and cut fabric. What began as a government-funded project has also attracted some interest from the private sector. Former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney chimes in near the end of the podcast, voicing his support for the technology, and an interest in utilizing the equipment in future apparel manufacturing ventures.

And although an automated workforce differs greatly from the early American garment industry, Dickerson says much of the production floor would remain the same in layout and scope, simply populated by fully-automated machines. The finalized version of the ideal shop would also feature qualified engineer-level technicians to service, maintain, and monitor machine performance, he adds.

Listen to the full podcast here.