While robots enter other industries in herds, the assembly of garments has long been a tedious, human privilege. Now, for the first time, a robot has sewn an entire, wearable piece of garment. Sewbo, an industrial robot programmed to tackle the tricky task, assembles clothes and makes it look easy.
Despite their precision, robots still lack the cognitive abilities and motoric skills to process soft fabrics reliably. Sewbo tackles this by impregnating the fabric with PVA, a non-toxic biodegradable polymer. The temporarily stiffened fabric then can be processed as if it were sheet metal. It can be welded, molded, and most importantly, grabbed and sewn by the robot in a repeatable manner. From the finished garment, the PVA is removed by simply rinsing it with warm water.
To sew two pieces of impregnated fabric together, they are first tacked together using an ultrasonic welder. Other than that, the process is surprisingly similar to manual sewing: Sewbo simply grabs the assembly and runs it through a standard sewing machine to put a permanent seam in place. Due to the fabric’s increased rigidity, this step is repeatable enough to let the robot work blindfolded, with no CV magic required.
Naturally, behind every smart robot, there’s a smart human. In case of Sewbo, it’s [Jonathan Zornow], who invented the new process. For his proof-of-concept, he rented a Universal Robot UR-5 for 30 days, equipped it with a vacuum cup end effector (kindly borrowed from Axis Automation in New Jersey), and bolted the whole thing to his Ikea dining room table. A consumer-grade, Brother CS6000i sewing machine was then hacked to be handled by the robot’s motion controller.
On the way to filling the automation gap in garment manufacturing, Sewbo marks an important milestone and we are curious to see this concept being taken further. Impregnating fabric with polymers may raise environmental concerns, but it’s already common practice in textile manufacturing to strengthen yarn with PVA for easier processing in weaving machines. It probably could be washed out a few steps later in the process chain.
Does anybody here have experience with kitting holes in dining room tables? Let us know in the comments! Enjoy the video below, where you can see how Sewbo assembles a T-shirt from start to finish.