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Rag-trade robots
[June 18, 2011]

Rag-trade robots

(New Scientist Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Robot tailoring: stitched by the sewbot Can machines that sew made-to-measure suits open the door to cheap, personalised clothing? I AM strolling along London's Savile Row, in the heart of fashionable Mayfair. This street, synonymous with sartorial excellence for 150 years, attracts customers from around the world in search of the finest bespoke suits.

It's easy to see why. Peer into any of its celebrated tailors and you glimpse a world in which collars, cuffs, seams and hems are carefully hand-stitched to ensure that fabric flows elegantly around the body. Here clothes are fashioned to make the very best of every curve, bump and bulge. With enough cash, even your imperfections can be made to look nothing less than, well, perfect.

Yet from where I am standing all I see is the reflection of my own ill-fitting, mass-produced suit and that leaves me puzzled. In an age of precision engineering and on-demand manufacturing, when we can manipulate atoms and print nanosized-circuits for pennies, why do most of us still struggle to find clothes that fit? The truth is that the cost of custom-tailoring outfits rules it out for most people, leaving the rest of us with mass-produced clothes that are made to standard sizes and shapes?- and no one is a standard size. What we need is mechanisation to deliver on its full promise.

While automation helped spin the wheels of the industrial revolution, the textile industry has never completely embraced it. To this day, the vast majority of clothes are stitched together manually, mostly by armies of poorly paid workers in Asian sweat shops. When it comes to holding two pieces of fabric together and running them through a sewing machine, there is still no substitute for the human hand.

That could be about to change. Thanks to a €23 million European research project, our clothes could soon be turned out entirely by machines. But rather than a waistcoat-wearing droid wielding tailor's chalk and a tape measure, textile factories will be filled with that workhorse of the motor industry, the one-armed production line robot, alongside shape-shifting tailor's dummies armed with retractable pins.

Working together, these computer-controlled "sewbots" could manipulate and stitch fabrics with dexterity, speed and cost to rival the human hand, and radically change the way we buy clothes at the same time. Machines would measure you, help you choose the style you fancy and then run up those garments to your exact measurements. The results may not reach the hand-stitched heights of Savile Row, but with unwavering precision, a needle-wielding robotic arm could outstrip the limited skills of the average manual worker. They might finally usher in the dawn of mass customisation.

Many of the components for this makeover are already in place. Laser scanners that measure body shape with disturbing precision have been available in stores for a decade. When first introduced, these machines did little more than tell customers which off-the-peg size would fit them best. Yet the latest scanning systems can turn your measurements into truly personalised clothes, says Martin Sofranko of Assyst Bullmer, a UK-based company that designs software for the scanners.

Walk into Tailor Made in Shoreditch, London, for example, and once your body shape has been mapped by lasers, you can browse a range of clothing styles, fits and fabrics, see how they would look on a virtual you and even personalise them to your taste. Finally, the software uploads your design to the manufacturer, transferring the details directly to the robotic fabric cutters.

This slick operation can whip up a suit in weeks rather than the months that a bespoke tailor usually requires?- and typically at around half the price. Yet someone must still sit at a sewing machine and stitch the whole thing together. While Tailor Made's final assembly stage takes place in Germany, for many mass-produced items, this process usually takes place in the developing world, where labour costs are low (see diagrams, page 48). Nearly a third of all the world's garments are now made in China, for example, and the World Bank estimates Chinese workers could soon be making half the world's clothes.

In 2004, a team of European engineers decided to try to challenge Asia's growing dominance in the industry. Their aim was simple: to find an automated way to make clothes rapidly, flexibly and at a cost that competes with low-paid human workers. The result was a research project with the snappy title Leadership for European Apparel Production From Research along Original Guidelines, (Leapfrog). Partly funded by the European Commission, Leapfrog was a collaboration of 35 industrial and academic partners from 11 countries, including German-based fashion house Hugo Boss and French clothing company La Redoute.

Leapfrog's primary aim was to create a prototype robot-only production line capable of turning out a suit jacket. This is more ambitious than it might seem, says project coordinator Lutz Walter of the Belgium-based European Apparel and Textile Confederation. Making a jacket involves a number of complex tasks, from handling fabrics on the cutting table and carefully arranging the separate components together, to stitching them into an elaborate 3D shape and pressing the finished garment. If you can make something as challenging as a jacket, then almost any other garment will be a snip, says Walter.

The team didn't need to start from scratch. Many clothes manufacturers already use computer-controlled rollers for moving fabrics around, as well as automated systems to hold material on cutting tables and cut out the garments' patterns. But that is pretty much where automation ends, says Rezia Molfino from the Laboratory of Design and Measurement for Automation and Robotics at the University of Genoa in Italy.

In particular, the engineers needed a way to automatically align two pieces of fabric and stitch them together. Fabric is soft and flexible, and both orientation and tension must be carefully controlled during stitching or seams end up misaligned or weak. "Humans generally handle fabric using two hands, and monitor the operations with a sense of touch and vision," says Molfino.

Creating robots that mimic the way we handle flexible materials is a tall order?- after years of trying, we still struggle to fully automate the assembly of carbon fibre aircraft components or lasagne ready meals. Getting a machine to hold thin cotton cloth in complex shapes is a task of Herculean proportions. "Curves require gathering," says Håkon Raabe of the Norwegian research organisation SINTEF, based in Trondheim. "It's really tricky to get the parts to stay in the right position." Raabe is the coordinator of Tempo, a Norwegian-led project that aims to tackle this by building a machine which can hold pieces of cloth in place and feed them through a stationary sewing machine. "It's a robot gripper, replacing the human hand," he says.

Several years later, Raabe's robot works?- up to a point. It can join flat pieces of fabric together into a number of simple shapes. The technology is now being commercialised.

It won't be making dresses any time soon, however; Tempo's robot is designed to sew upholstery and it's a huge step from a foot stool to a jacket. For a start, the fabric for making clothes tends to be thinner and more difficult to handle. Clothing also uses more complex shapes and intricate stitching than the average chair cover.

So Walter and his Leapfrog team began by looking for ways to make the task more amenable to robotic fingers. An early suggestion was to temporarily stiffen the fabric by spraying it with a solution of water-soluble polymers or nanoparticles. When the water evaporates, the chemicals would bind together, giving the fabric extra rigidity. Once manufacturing is complete, these chemicals would be washed out. However, the extra costs involved and the risk that the chemicals would alter the feel of the final product led to this idea being shelved.

Instead, the Leapfrog team focused on finding a way to fix fabric into the desired shape. With the cloth secure, a movable sewing machine could then buzz around the seams and complete the garment. What was needed, they decided, was an automated tailor's dummy with a twist.

This dummy would be nothing like those used by fashion designers and tailors, says Andrea Pestarino, of the Italian engineering research group D'Appolonia, based in Genoa. "They can turn a knob to make it bigger, but they cannot change the shape of the spine and the shoulders," he says. Leapfrog's dummy would not only need to automatically adapt its size and shape, but it would also need to hold the fabric in place.

Resembling the body of a skeletal alien, the dummy has a flexible metal mesh skin and shiny, segmented spine. Beneath the skin is a nervous system of wires, pipes, pistons and valves?- a computer-controlled hydraulic system that can alter the dummy's size and shape as required. But the machine has another trick up its sleeve. At the flick of a switch, an array of pins push out through its skin to hold pieces of fabric firmly in place.

More than five years after the project started, Walter's team has finally tested their automated production line to create a jacket. First up, motorised rollers move the fabric onto a computer-controlled cutting table where the jacket components are cut out. These pieces are then picked up by finger-like suction grippers and moved on an overhead rail to the tailor's dummy for assembly. Once held in place by the dummy's pins, the final stage of the process can begin. A robotic arm with a sewing machine "hand" buzzes along the joins, stitching the pieces together.

This sewing arm, developed by the German engineering firm Moll Automatische Nähsysteme, based in Aachen, was first employed to help doctors close incisions during surgery. It is also used to sew simple upholstery for cars, such as head rests. Its speed is impressive: the arm takes just 20 seconds to finish a job that would take an experienced worker with a sewing machine 5 minutes to complete.

In tests, Leapfrog's production line performed like clockwork. Yet the jacket it produces may leave the project's funders feeling stitched up. Lacking sleeves, pockets, buttons and a lining, it would look shabby at a barn dance let alone a grand ball. Worse, to create what amounts to a tailored sack still requires human intervention to check the surface of the fabric for folds and wrinkles as it is stitched together.

Even with these limitations, the team are convinced the project is a success. The addition of sleeves poses no extra problem, says Walter, and machines already exist for automatically sewing on buttons. And so what if the production process needs the occasional helping hand? The latest robotic car assembly lines can't do entirely without human quality control either, he adds.

With research complete, Leapfrog's technology is already at work. Hugo Boss, for example, is using an automated system pioneered by Leapfrog to compare fabric colour and check that fabrics sourced from different parts of the world match. Similarly, Leapfrog's fabric stitching and laser welding technologies are now being used to assemble everything from air bags to life jackets.

Despite these advances, it will still be some time before the first machine-made suit hits the shops. Manufacturers will need to make substantial investment in the technology before they switch on the first automated production line?- and this could make the items produced expensive. To get the most out of their investment, and keep costs down, production volumes will have to be high enough to keep the machines running day and night. "Typically, shop-floor labour costs in developing countries are 10 per cent of those in the west," says Jagjit Srai, head of the Centre for International Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge. Building a state-of-the-art robotic factory that can compete on price with clothing produced in sweat shops is going to be tough, he says.

Automated style Walter predicts that the first robot production lines will run up low-quality, high-volume clothes that are simple in design, such as hospital uniforms. If automation in the car industry is anything to go by, he says, it could take the textile industry over a decade to switch over. But once machines get a foot in the door, mass customisation should follow.

So should the tailors of Savile Row start to worry? Any form of mass-produced clothing, be it by human or robotic hand, only makes us look better, says Darren Tiernan of tailor Dege & Skinner, which has been making suits since 1865. "I don't think we will ever be greatly affected." He admits that bespoke tailors must move with the times but believes that machines will never master the art of making clothes. "It's the personal touch, the little things that we see, which make up a suit. That's what sets us apart," he says.

Yet Thomas Koep, Hugo Boss's representative in the Leapfrog project, believes automated tailoring will bring a number of benefits, including better-fitting clothes. He also hopes it will reduce the huge amount of waste created by inaccurate cutting; around 15 per cent of the cloth used to produce each garment currently ends up in landfill, incinerators or as mattress stuffing.

This technology could potentially allow the clothing trade to respond more rapidly to what people want to wear, rather than guessing and getting it wrong, Koep says. Fashion trends will probably come and go much faster as a result, he adds, accelerating the "fast fashion" approach already utilised within the industry to reduce delays between design and production.

And what of the hope that automation will help return the clothing industry to Europe? Things may not work out that way, reckons Sofranko. Robotic tailors may streamline made-to-measure services, but with China's knack for technological imitation and innovation, it remains to be seen where these systems will end up. "In five years, China will have copied the technology," he says. "In a few years more, they will be leading the way." n Duncan Graham-Rowe is a writer based in Brighton, UK Robotic vehicle makers are showing tailors the way (c) 2011 Reed Business Information - UK. All Rights Reserved.

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