COVID-19 pandemic has reignited the debate in the USA on consolidation of domestic manufacturing and supply chains. A huge number of manufacturers and organisations are bracing up to support the collaborative efforts of the industry stakeholders to bring back production in the USA especially in apparel sector where technology has become a go-to approach in the country. The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute in USA has started expediting focus areas identification process through its recent project calls across industries with an emphasis on the apparel industry.
ARM Institute has selected eight new robotics technology projects aligned with the organisation’s mission to strengthen US manufacturing and empower workers. A total of US $ 7.5 million will be contributed across these eight projects. ARM plans to award US $ 2.9 million in project funding, and the participating organisations plan to contribute US $ 4.6 million in cost share.
Of all eight projects, the ones which are dedicated solely to apparel and textile manufacturing industry are – (1) ‘Bot Couture’: Robotic Assembly of Garments; (2) Automated Bottom Hemming Through Robotic Garment Manipulation and (3) Robotic Assistant for Repurposable Fabric Fusing Operations. Markedly, ARM Institute has also unveiled the approach followed in the first project ‘Bot Couture’: Robotic Assembly of Garments’ and its results.
Before we go deep in the details of the released projects, below are the brief descriptions of each selected project for garment and textile industry:
- ‘Bot Couture’: Robotic Assembly of Garments
Lead: Siemens Technology
Partners: Sewbo Inc., Bluewater Defense and University of California at Berkeley
Description: Most apparel manufacturing is done abroad, which leads to lengthy supply chains. This supply chain issue poses a significant risk, as seen when the US struggled to scale up production of apparels. This project team will leverage results from a previously funded ARM project to expand upon it by delivering a modular work-cell that can be configured to perform end-to-end automated assembly of garments which will be extended to PPEs, such as isolation gowns.
- Automated Bottom Hemming Through Robotic Garment Manipulation
Lead: Siemens Technology
Partners: University of Southern California, Henderson Sewing, Black Swan Textiles, United Sewing Automation
Description: This project team will focus on developing robotic capabilities to perform bottom hemming, the process of performing a circular stitch at the bottom of the T-shirt. This project will also build upon a previously funded ARM project, ultimately resulting in the use of a bimanual robot to pick up a garment from a stack, dynamically read just its shape and then insert it into an automatic bottom hemmer. In addition to the technology capabilities, the project team will focus on workforce development aspects to enable operators to easily operate and maintain the system.
- Robotic Assistant for Repurposable Fabric Fusing Operations
Lead: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Partners: Interface Technologies, Hickey Freeman
Description: The USA continues to lose apparel manufacturing to international suppliers who offer lower wage costs; however, the apparel industry is ripe for automation. Current processes see human workers touching each piece of fabric and manually picking and placing. This project team is working to develop an end effector that can pick and place fabric and interlining piece parts and fabric bolts onto the fusing machine conveyor. The team plans to develop open source software modules that can program robots from multiple vendors and leverage collaborative robots that can be easily positioned.
Project Details of ‘Bot Couture’: Robotic Assembly of Garments’
According to Suzy Teele, Head of Marketing and Communications, ARM Institute, despite being universally adopted throughout traditional manufacturing, industrial robots have failed to find a place in garment sewing applications due to the robots’ difficulties in handling limp textiles. This makes the global apparel industry strongly dependent on manual labour.
“The outputs from the funded technology project titled ‘Robotic Assembly of Garments’ created considerable impact by taking the first steps in revolutionising this trillion-dollar industry via a new robotic assembly process that stiffens garment pieces by laminating its fabric with water-soluble thermoplastic polymer,” says Suzy.
This flexible robotic system was developed to handle and assemble fabric pieces into garments. Traditional sewing machines were controlled via Robot Operating System (ROS) to achieve synchronised operation with the robot. The polymer utilised in the process can be easily removed through washing and can be recycled for multiple process cycles. The technology was successfully demonstrated at Bluewater Defense production facility and is being further matured for more complex sewing operations.
Several core robotic technologies were developed in this project to enable flexible and robust garment assembly. The team identified ‘Robotic sewing of pocket flaps for military uniform pants’ as the use case to demonstrate the core technologies. Once the use case was finalised, the team identified and developed various robotic skills (pose estimation, bending, welding, stitching) required for the task. These skills were developed in ROS in a modular and extensible fashion so that they can be utilised for different scenarios.
The robot operation was orchestrated with other machine stations (sewing station, welding station and folding stations) to ensure smooth and synchronised operation. Fabric pieces were laminated and treated by Sewbo with the treatment process optimised to ensure the desired stiffness.
UC Berkeley developed simulation models to support the various process steps. After developing and validating the core robotic technologies, the Siemens team integrated and validated the system operation before conducting the final demonstration at Bluewater Defense facility in Puerto Rico.
The team developed a novel system and method for using robotic systems to accomplish sewing operations including folding, joining and stitching fabrics. In the demonstration, this system was successfully able to sew the pocket flaps for military uniform pants. The project served as a critical first step in proving the viability of this technology. The system is capable of producing parts that satisfy the Bluewater Defense quality requirements. While the robotic system currently has a higher cycle time than human operators, it has the potential to lead to greater automation and shorter cycles with further development.
Siemens, Bluewater Defense and Sewbo are working on further development to fully mature and optimise this technology. Several ongoing ARM projects build upon the IP generated in this project, extending its applicability to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) production in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and more advanced garment assembly. This project demonstrated impressive technological gains and will result in meaningful impact to the project partners and the entire ARM community.