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What Do Robots Find Hard? Sewing a T-shirt, For One Thing

Humans automatically and constantly adjust hand movements to the ever-changing alignment of cloth. Robots just freeze

Menswear entrepreneur Harris Quinn wrote a thoughtful piece at Wired recently on the mixed success of efforts to automate sewing via Sewbots, for example, developed by SoftWear Automation CEO Palaniswamy Rajan:

One reason that sewing lends itself so well to the grinding labor of sweatshops is that it is very difficult to automate. That’s because cloth is pliable and constantly moving. The Sewbots face unexpected hurdles:

But no two batches of cotton are exactly alike, often varying from harvest to harvest; variations in the fabric and dyes further complicate matters. Each variation can necessitate recalibrating the system, interrupting operations, and SoftWear has to train its machinery to respond accordingly. “The biggest challenge we have faced getting to a production system is the requirement of being able to operate 24/7 at high speeds and greater than 98 percent quality,” says Rajan.

Harris Quinn, “Why Robots Can’t Sew Your T-Shirt” at Wired (September 27, 2021)

Rajan’s group focuses on T-shirts — of which 20 billion are produced globally every year, mainly in low-wage sweatshops — because they are comparatively simple. Many garment production operations require more flexibility:

A skilled team of humans might sew short-sleeve men’s shirts one day and women’s jeans the next. Such transitions are more challenging for robots. The way that a cotton polo is sewn together differs significantly from how a pair of polyester pants is constructed. Developing a new work line for different cuts of fabric and to sew different stitches is complicated and costly. Once production is set up to make T-shirts, it would be difficult to quickly reconfigure the Sewbots to make something else.

Harris Quinn, “Why Robots Can’t Sew Your T-Shirt” at Wired (September 27, 2021)

So far, Softwear Automation has only made 50 T-shirts.

Quinn worries about the potential job loss from robotic success:

Rajan acknowledges that SoftWear will employ fewer people than a traditional T-shirt maker, but he believes his company will create higher-paying jobs for people who will maintain the machines. “You want to develop the workforce, and you want to train the workforce,” he says. “Our intention is to have skilled labor and fast, agile production.”

Harris Quinn, “Why Robots Can’t Sew Your T-Shirt” at Wired (September 27, 2021)

The awkward problem, of course, is that the low-wage garment industry workers may not be offered an opportunity to learn how to maintain the machines. Macro trend analysts Bain & Company warned in a recent report that in the United States alone, “By the end of the 2020s, automation may eliminate 20% to 25% of current jobs, hitting middle- to low-income workers the hardest.”

In countries where few alternatives exist, the alternative to sweatshops might be destitution and political unrest. The current slow pace of automation of tasks like sewing may create a window for workers to move toward jobs where automation is not really a target — teaching and health care, for example.

You may also wish to read: Don’t plan your career around driving a delivery van. Or doing a variety of tasks where repetitive movement is the key to success. Not all of Boston Dynamics’ robots may work out but this short vid makes clear that future jobs for humans will largely depend on harnessing creativity.

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What Do Robots Find Hard? Sewing a T-shirt, For One Thing