Thursday, March 1, 2018

Automation in Apparel Manufacturing Industry

Automation is the use of control systems such as computers to control the industrial machinery and processes replacing human operators. Whereas mechanisation provides human operators with machineries to assist them with the physical requirements of work, automation greatly reduces the need for human sensory and mental requirement as well. Automation adds a layer of flexibility that brand companies and retailers are going to be demanding more and more, especially as manufacturers and brand companies become more attuned to demand signals from the marketplace. It has been found that the level of automation in apparel manufacturing has been directly related to the cost of labour.

Apparel manufacturing is a labor-intensive process since it was first mechanized in the 19th century. Although, there have been several technological developments in many other fields, the technology of sewing and its related processes have not done much progress. The modern apparel manufacturing process can be characterized by low fixed capital investment; a wide range of product designs and hence input materials; variable production volumes; high competitiveness; and often high demand on product quality. To achieve the products at competitive price, several fashion brands have moved their manufacturing facilities to developing countries such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, India, and Cambodia. Several garment industries in these countries are still performing manual operations because of availability of cheap labor, high cost of automation, and complexity of processes. The increased labor cost and demand for high-quality clothes cannot be fulfilled by the manual operations. The use of automatic tools and equipment is essential to cater these demands at lower production cost.

Automation in Garment Manufacturing:
A garment industry’s competitive advantage in global market depends on the level of advanced technologies and automatic tools and equipment that are used in its designing, production planning, manufacturing, supply chain, and retailing. Clothing manufacturers can meet the global market demand for high quality and reduced cost by constant adoption of newer technologies and automation for quick response (QR) and just-in-time production. Budget limitations in many developing countries prevent the garment manufacturers to adopt the advanced technologies.

Automation in garment manufacturing
Figure-1: Automation in garment manufacturing
Requirements of automation:
Skilled labors are used in almost all the operations involved with garment manufacturing. The quality control of final garment is more subjective in nature based on nonnumeric description of quality and understanding of the garment style and design requirements. There is no doubt that automation can increase the efficiency of production, reduce the number of defects, and reduce the overall cost of manufacturing. The global demand for quality garments, low cost of production, and competitive advantage can be achieved by the adoption of automation. However, the adoption of automation in garment manufacturing will take some time before it is fully realized in garment manufacturing.

Fundamentals of automation:
Millions of dollars were spent in the developed countries including the Europe and the United States to automate the garment manufacturing process in 1980s. However, this attempt did not achieve large-scale automation in garment industries, although some processes were automated. Although there have been a good number of research to automate garment manufacturing after 1980s, the progress in achieving fully automation has not been realized yet. This can be attributed to the associated difficulties in fabric handling, which is discussed in later. The principles of automation in garment manufacturing can be started from the very beginning stage, i.e., fiber production through yarn manufacturing, fabric manufacturing, and finally the apparel manufacturing as shown in Figure-2. 

You can see: Flow Chart of Textile Manufacturing Process.

Majority of the earlier researches on fabric handling are based on using an industrial style robot arm, which can grip the fabric with a custom end effector and rotate it during the fabric feeding using the feed dog systems. Frank Paul designed a fabric handling system to detect the edge of a fabric using machine vision. This system can determine the placement of the end effector on the fabric and accordingly plan a seam path at an offset to that edge. However, this system was not much successful as it was lacking robustness because of outgoing filaments and unable to handle inhomogeneous cuts and wrinkles in the fabric. Furthermore, this system was unable to handle multiple pieces of fabric used in a seam and was not very useful for automatic fabric handling.

textile and garment manufacturing
Figure-2: The intelligent textile and garment manufacturing environment
Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are used while automation is incorporated in the manufacturing processes. Although PLCs are similar to computers, they are optimized for task control during industrial applications compared with computers, which are optimized for calculations. Programmable memory is used in PLCs, which store instructions and functions such as logic, counting, sequencing, and timing. The processing system of a PLC uses simple programming to vary the controls of inputs and outputs. The flexibility of the PLCs is their greatest advantage as the same basic controller can operate with a range of control systems. The flexibility also helps in cost saving while designing complex control systems.

The technological advancements in an apparel industry can be classified as: (1) software technology and (2) hardware technology. The software technologies include the CAD, CAM, ERP software, statistical process control, software for production planning and inventory management, and data management; whereas the hardware technologies include automated sewing, automated identification, programmable production controllers, automated material handling, automated inspection systems, and robotics.

The use of robotics is also increasing in the garment manufacturing mainly in the sewing floor. Robotics is the branch of electronic technology that deals with the design, construction, operation, and application of robots. Various mechanical, electrical, and electronic components are used including the computer software to make the robotics accurate and fast. The application of industrial robotics started after World War II as there was a need for quicker production of consumer goods. The technological advances has helped to design much advanced robots, which are employed in manufacturing, domestic, commercial, and military applications. Robotics is also applied in areas where there is potential threat or the job is repetitive in nature as in garment manufacturing.

Areas of automation in apparel production:
There are several areas of automation in garment production, which also includes yarn and fabric production processes. A brief description has been given earlier on the automation of yarn and fabric manufacturing. This section will focus on the automation of processes involved in garment production, which included fabric inspection, CAD and CAM, fabric spreading and cutting, sewing, pressing, material handling, and the role of radio-frequency identification (RFID) in automation.

Automatic fabric inspection:
Fabric inspection is performed by the skilled workers on a lighted surface who perform a subjective evaluation of the fabrics. As it is a manual process, many times the faults are not detected accurately. Furthermore, the inspection is also affected by the psychological factors, tiredness, and physical well-being of the inspector. Hence, the inefficiency and inaccuracy of the inspection can be passed into the fabric, which can result in the production of defective garments. The use of automation tools and equipment can help in increasing the efficiency of the inspection process.

Online automated inspection systems can detect the faults during the fabric production as well as during the fabric inspection process. Various techniques such as statistical approach, spectral approach, and model-based approach can be taken for automatic fabric inspection. In all these approaches fabric image is manipulated by a software or modeling tool to extract the information relating to the severity of fabric faults. The faults detected are automatically marked in the fabric and some points are allocated depending on the fault dimension and severity. If the fabric lot exceeds a certain threshold, they are rejected.

Computer-aided design and computer-aided: manufacturing
Introduction of computer-aided processes and appropriate information systems to support the area of technological preparation of production started in the clothing industry in the mid-1970s. This was a logical result of rapid development in computer technology and is becoming both a matter of urgency and a decisive factor in the clothing producer’s success. The use of modern and capable computer hardware and software can assure high and constant quality of garments, increased productivity, flexibility, and QR to the requirements of the fashion market. Computer equipment is widely used for design and production of garments as well as for the assurance of effective information flows. The producers of such computer equipment, such as graphic workstations, have successfully adopted the characteristics of the engineering area of clothing technology.

The measurement of body dimensions is a manual and time-consuming process. For the production of traditional mass customized garment, different body dimensions are measured and recorded in a paper. These measurements are used by the designer or tailor to produce the customized garment. These practices although inaccurate, inconsistent, and tedious, are still followed in many countries for the production of customized garments. However, for the production of mass customized garment in a retail store, the advanced tools such as 3D body scanning should be used to automatically extract the measurement of the body dimensions. The 3D body scanning devices can capture the three coordinates (X, Y, and Z) for the whole human body. Then appropriate software can convert these data into accurate body dimensions.

3D body scanning is a noncontact technique that captures body dimensions over 360 degrees by the use of white light or laser light. The data collected are accurate and represent the three-dimensional shape of the real body, which can be used in the formation of the body shapes and contours to create a 3D virtual model. These scanned data can be used to create patterns for different types of garments. For creating patterns, an automatic system need to be developed that can locate the referencing points or landmarks needed for generating body measurements from the scanned data by using a model-based feature recognition algorithm. The scanned data from the 3D scanner have a format of three-dimension point cloud, which indicates many points on the body surface.

These scanned data can also be used for developing the virtual fit model, which are similar to virtual clothing samples. These virtual clothing samples can be presented to the buyers, retailers, or even to the consumers. The virtual fit models eliminate the cost and time involved in the creation of physical samples, and the style is approved in the first attempt. The virtual fit models can help the customers to visualize the mass-customized product before making the purchase. The right type of fabrics can be selected as per the customer’s choice and then the virtual fit and appearance of the clothing can be evaluated before making the purchase decision. The virtual fit model is used by many online retail businesses such as eBay.

Fabric spreading and cutting:
Fabric spreading can be accomplished by automatic machines on the spreading table. Some machines can work for fabric used in a wide range of applications such as workwear, automotive, container bag, industrial applications, high-performance applications (e.g., Nomex, Kevlar, and carbon), nonwovens, and felts including the apparel fabrics. The fabric parameters such as length, width, and ply counts can be entered into the liquid crystal display touch screen of the machine. The fabric is automatically spread by the machine for the number of plies and stops when the number of plies has been completed. In addition, the machine has the provision to slow down when it approaches both the ends and take care of the alignment of the fabric grain line with the help of sensors.

Similarly automatic cutting machines are available to cut multiple plies of a range of fabric types ranging from lightweight apparel fabric to high-performance industrial fabrics. The marker is fed to a computer using a USB and the cutting head automatically moves to cut the pattern pieces as per the marker. Cutting can be performed by the use of laser, knife, or water-jet. Some of the other features include auto-detection of blade sharpness and indication when the blade is blunt, automatic drilling, and notching. Laser cutters can provide certain degree of advantages than the other cutters in terms of accuracy, no fraying of fabrics, precise and smooth cutting edges, and no change of blades. The advantages of automatic cutting over manual cutting are increased efficiency and accuracy; ease of cutting single and multiple plies; and perfect cutting in the first time.

Automation in sewing:
As mentioned earlier, majority of the fashion brands and garment retailers have already shifted their production to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In these countries, most of the garment manufacturing processes especially the sewing process is still done by skilled labor. Substantial progress has not done by the manufacturers on purchasing automated tools and equipment. This has helped them to keep their investments low. On the other hand, there are some manufacturers with automated tools and equipment for sewing and other activities that can produce value-added products more efficiently. The manufacturers not investing on the modern tools and equipment are facing very stiff competition to keep the labor cost low.

For automation of sewing process, industrial robots are recently being developed that can handle the fabric during sewing operation. The concept of automatic sewing robots was derived from a motorized hand-held medical sewing machine used to close the edge of wounds by spherical seams. Figure-3 shows the image of a compact and light robotic sewing machine.

robotics in garment manufacturing
Figure-3: The use of robotics in garment manufacturing (
In this machine the mechanism of seam formation is similar to a traditional sewing machine. The difference lies in the technology the machine operates, the weight, and dimensions. Being robotic, it carries miniaturized components performing specific functions. The machine works with an industrial robot by a coupling unit. Various types of stitches such as overlock stitch, double chain stitch, and double lockstitch can be formed by the machine. The technical challenges with this machine are: (1) the synchronization of the continuous robot movement and discontinuous sewing process; and synchronization of the time sequence of vertical sewing foot movement, horizontal needle movement, and robot speed.

There have been some experimental trials to stitch the whole garment by the use of robots. One such example is Zornow’s robot “Sewbo,” which can handle the fabric components during automatic sewing. The fabric need to be stiffened by the application of a water-soluble and nontoxic polymer (polyvinyl alcohol), which makes the handling operation easier. This polymer has been successfully applied to the yarn as a sizing material. The polymer can be removed from the yarn and fabric by the application of hot water. The fabric also retains its original softness after washing.

Invented by Zornow in 2015, the robot “Sewbo” can sew a T-shirt from start to the end. This success was a milestone in achieving 100% automation to manufacture a complete garment. The sequence of operations includes cutting of the panels of the T-shirt by a machine, drenching and stiffening the panels with the polymer, laying them in a flat surface. Then the robotic arm lifts the panels by its suction cups and positions them in a commercial sewing machine. Once stitched, the robot lifts from the sewing machine and the T-shirt is ready. The industrial robot has been successfully applied in the manufacturing of a T-shirt.

The robot can be programmed to grip and position the fabric to the sewing machine repeatedly for a specific size and specific operation. When the size or the style of the garment changes, the robot need to be reprogrammed. The robot is now successful to completely finish all the operations for a T-shirt. This technology can be extended to other garment styles by the program and design modification. However, multiple robots may be needed to perform all the operations relating to a particular garment style.

The use of sewbots such as “Sewbo” will help to achieve high-quality garments at reduced cost (Figure-4). This will also help in solving the labor-related issues, reducing the lead time, reducing defects, and reducing the supply chain, which is a major concern for many global retailers. These robots can work with a wide range of fabrics except the fabric applied with hydrophobic finish or other specialty finish or leather material as it is hard to apply the stiffening polymer. In these cases operations such as attaching the cuffs and collars can be performed automatically.

Industrial sewing robot
Figure-4: Industrial sewing robot “Sewbo”: (a) fabric gripping and (b) sewing.
Although reasonable progress has been made in the sewing machine settings and stitching quality to change with the fabric quality, there are areas of complexity such as needle–fabric interaction while sewing. As the relationship between the physical and mechanical properties on fabric behavior is nonlinear, the interaction between the fabric and needle is nonlinear. Relating to the nonlinear interaction, the behavior of individual materials is different, which makes the automation process difficult. Furthermore, during the sewing operation, the pulling or slipping of fabric cannot be precisely controlled by the automatic equipment, leading to seam pucker. To resolve this problem the control algorithms should be robust enough to work successfully where no transfer function exists.

The use of robotic 3D sewing technology can explore new dimensions in sewing as it can produce high-tech garments with high quality. Furthermore, the 3D sewing technology can help in cost reduction and fast response to customer demand. One of the 3D sewing technologies was developed by Philipp Moll GmbH & Co., which can make 3D seams automatically. The cut components of a garment are placed in a 3D mold and an industrial robot guides a special sewing machine along the spatial seam course. The adjustable mold can adapt to different shapes and sizes of the garment. The 3D sewing technology can be used to manufacture apparels (trousers, jackets, shirts) and car seat covers, airbag fabrics, and many other 3D shapes. This 3D technology can help in achieving better quality of sewn products at higher efficiency.

The characteristic features of 3D sewing technology have been discussed below:

  • The cut components are placed in the 3D mold in their spatial shape free from creases and tension.
  • The cut components are not handled manually during 3D sewing operation.
  • The industrial robot guides the sewing machine along the spatial seam path, and the sewing is free from manual interference.
  • All the steps involved in sewing such as fabric positioning, transportation, sewing, and offloading are performed by the robot integrated with the special sewing machine. As multiple operations are handled by the robot, the efficiency of the process increases.
  • The 3D sewing technology can be extended to several fabric types, flexible, accurate, and free from skilled worker and their psychological well-being.
  • The 3D sewing technology helps to reduce the labor cost, increases productivity, and independent of labor costs and manufacturing location.
The other area lacking automation is pressing, which is one of the important steps to enhance the aesthetics of the product before going to the customers. Pressing is done to remove any creases in the garment so that it is attractive when the customer purchases it. A better way of presenting the purchased garment to the customers helps in brand recognition. There have been a wide range of developments in automating the pressing operation.

In garment manufacturing, pressing is a taxing task and it is performed in relatively inhospitable environment. Often, it is performed by the workers with less skill of sewing. It is more suitable for male workers as the strenuous work in poor working conditions are counterbalanced by higher pay. There is always a challenge to find and retain skilled workers for pressing operation. The operators when acquire adequate skill, migrate to other industries for higher salary. The labor turnover in pressing is higher than sewing. Hence, getting consistent pressing quality is always a problem. These problems can be addressed by adopting the automation technique in pressing. Furthermore, the problem of labor shortage and human error during pressing are eliminated by automation.

Although there have been several technical advancements in the pressing technology, the number of automation tools is limited. A number of advanced technologies such as pressing robot, jacket finisher (front), shirt finisher, and shirt press have been commercially available. However, the labor application is still prevalent in loading or removal of the garment into the buck, smoothing, and shaping. For successful automation of the whole garment manufacturing process, it is essential to gain significant improvement in pressing in addition to the other areas (cutting, sewing, and material handling).

Use of radio-frequency identification:
RFID is an identification system that uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track the movement of objects. The use of RFID system can assist the automation process during garment manufacturing by helping to trace the products during the whole manufacturing process. The identification technique helps to accurately identify and monitor the progress of the semifinished and finished garments from remote places in a real-time environment. The collected information can be used to increase in inventory turnover, improve quality, and automate the manual processes. RFID technology is easily installed and works in the production environment to increase the production efficiency.

For example in cutting, the cut bundles can be attached with an RFID tag, which can be used for the identification of the components, style, color, and other relevant information. Furthermore, the information on the processes that has been completed and the processes that is pending can be obtained from the tags. The use of RFID technology can help in the intelligent garment manufacturing and automation. As the RFID tags contain the information on the processes to be performed, once a process is complete, the readers can update the information and transport the components for the next operation. The use of RFID tags can help to generate reports, monitor the progress of each operator and each production style.

RFID technology has many applications in textile and garment manufacturing such as inventory management, product tracking, production monitoring and control, retail management, and brand segregation. RFID technologies may improve the potential benefits of SCM through reduction of inventory losses, increase of the efficiency and speed of processes, and improvement of information accuracy. The basic of success lies in understanding the technology and other features to minimize the potential problems.


According to the above discussion, now we can understand that automation in the apparel industry is inevitable to increase productivity and prosperity. The more early we can launch automation in any apparel industry, the more early we can desire thousand of benefits.

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