Part of this initiative, says Palaniswamy "Raj" Rajan, CEO of SoftWear, involves reconfiguring the traditional supply chain for the industry.

PRINTWEAR EXCLUSIVE: SoftWear Secures $4.5 Million for Apparel-Manufacturing Robots

ATLANTA—Automation technology firm SoftWear Automation receives $4.5 million in funding from its existing investor, CTW Venture Partners. The Atlanta-based firm develops and sells robotic sewing technology, also known as Sewbots, to apparel and textile companies in the U.S. By fully automating sewn goods work lines, the company hopes to reinvigorate domestic apparel production.

Part of this initiative, says Palaniswamy "Raj" Rajan, CEO of SoftWear, involves reconfiguring the traditional supply chain for the industry.

“We want to shorten the distance between the customer and the materials, and improve efficiency of the supply chain,” states Rajan outlining how the current dynamic for most supply chains involves sourcing labor and goods from regions like Southeast Asia where wages are lower and regulations less restrictive.

Sewbots reconfigure the traditional garment supply chain. (All images courtesy SoftWear)

With SoftWear’s innovations, Rajan adds, the company aims to bring the supply chain in-house, eliminating the need for excess warehousing.

“You don’t have to maintain a lot of inventory, you just have to maintain (garment) fibers,” says Rajan.

SoftWear’s $4.5 million from CTW comes as the newest in a line of funding sources for the company. In 2012, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) distributed a grant to the firm, totaling roughly $1.75 million. The company secured the funding by proposing that the Sewbot technology could help streamline manufacturing for U.S. military apparel. Under the Berry Amendment, the U.S. government requires military uniforms be American-made. The robotic technology offered a potential solution for high-volume production of a garment traditionally sewn by a rapidly disappearing and aging skilled workforce.

“[DARPA] looked at the data and they saw that the average age for a seamstress is 56 years old,” states Rajan. “Essentially, manufacturers would not be able to meet their goals in the next 10 years.”

With this new round of funding, Rajan says the company plans to add 20 employees to its team, and finalize the latest series of Sewbots.

“[These robots] are part of our T-shirt work line,” Rajan explains. With more than 90 percent of apparel currently made outside the U.S., Rajan hopes to bring a portion of that production back home.

A SoftWear employee testing Sewbot the technology. 

He also cautions that while the concept of automation might make some wary of its impact on a labor force, the implementation of the technology opens the door to a modern version of the traditional garment manufacturing facility. With robotics and automation, Rajan sees a workforce of higher-paid employees with engineering skills to monitor, maintain, and repair the robots. He also contends that his vision of the workplace puts skilled laborers like seamstresses into new roles where they can apply their craft.

“We don’t believe [this technology] will replace seamstresses, it will simply remove them from doing basic tasks,” explains Rajan. In this model, he elaborates, seamstresses also get paid more for doing intricate work.

The machines handle more menial and repetitive tasks. 

Overall, Rajan estimates 50–100 jobs created through each T-shirt line launched using the technology. Through other related industries like fabric construction and cotton farming, he theorizes, a ripple effect of job growth is possible.

SoftWear expects the newest line of robots to ship to apparel manufacturers in the fourth quarter of 2018.

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