Can ‘gripper’ robots shift garment making from Asia to the West?

HAMBURG, Germany — Clothing companies in Europe and the U.S. are hopeful they can finally automate one of the most costly and time-consuming steps in the garment- making process: moving fabric from one part of the factory to another. Laser-guided cutting machines and computer-controlled sewing machines have been staples of the industry for years, but transferring fabric between such machines is still largely done by the human hand, as robots struggle to handle soft fabrics precisely.

This reliance on workers is one reason so much garment manufacturing has shifted from the West to Asia, where labor costs are often lower. Textile researchers at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University estimate that in manufacturing a piece of clothing, handling time — as distinct from the cutting or sewing steps — accounts for about 80% of production time and roughly 80% of factory costs.

Various approaches to solving the problem were on display at the recent Texprocess trade fair in Frankfurt.

Germany-based Robotextile showed off robots capable of picking up individual layers of fabric from a pile and arranging them according to a preset plan. French sporting goods retailer Decathlon, meanwhile, has conducted trials using robotic grippers made by Germany-based Zimmer Group to automate the sewing of foam pads into cyclist pants. The technology uses artificial intelligence to help the robots deal with wrinkles in the fabric.

“These trials are about holding production in Europe or bringing it back, and the success of reshoring efforts will depend on the quality of the technical solutions,” said Erik Bauhaus, a research and development engineer at Zimmer Group.

Sewbo of the U.S. has taken a different approach, using water-soluble solution to temporarily stiffen a sheet of fabric so that a robot can handle it as if it were working with a rigid material like metal or plastic.

Using textile-gripping robots “saves time and resources for training workers, and the technology can be a good support for fashion brands to quickly respond to the domestic market demand,” Fan Di, a professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Fashion and Textiles, told Nikkei Asia.

The garment industry’s traditional business model has been to place bulk orders with manufacturers in Asia, often with significant lead times.

Reshoring production could help clothing companies in Europe respond more quickly to changing trends, Fan added.

“Brands may want to reshore high value added processes for product categories that require fast response to the domestic market, while leaving the less time sensitive production and low value added processes overseas.”

Bringing home production could help ease life for European retailers in particular. After battling supply disruptions during the pandemic, they are now grappling with falling demand due to inflation sparked by fallout from the Ukraine war.

Researchers at Germany’s Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences recently warned that the business as usual approach is becoming too risky and recommended a shift to a post-order payment mode facilitated by speedy “reshored” on-demand small-batch production.

On the other side of the equation, however, are worries in Asia about jobs.

“The grippers will definitely increase production output manyfold,” Robert Young, the Philippine Exporters Confederation’s trustee for the textile sector, told Nikkei Asia. “But this represents quite a challenge to some Southeast Asian and less developed economies, especially the Philippines, because of the high acquisition cost and the need for technicians for maintenance.

“Also, robotics are definitely threats to human laborers’ job security in the developing countries, so they might be greeted by protests by the concerned labor groups here.”

Fan, the Hong Kong professor, warned that even if grippers help production move back to Europe, it will not create many jobs, which is one of the wishes driving Western reshoring efforts. And while automation may save on labor costs, it increases energy costs, meaning the current high energy prices could undermine the benefit of using the technology.

Still, Anton Schumann, a partner at Germany-based textile consultancy Gherzi, said the advent of robotic textile grippers is “exciting” in view of the European Commission earlier this year unveiling its EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles as part of the EU Green Deal. The strategy aims to have all textile products sold in the EU to be durable, repairable and recyclable, largely made from recycled fibers, free from hazardous substances and produced in ways that respect social rights.

“Major retailers like Gerry Weber or s.Oliver may have to rethink their entire business model if the EU strategy gets through, and robotic grippers could play a role in bringing some production back to Europe, but only if the technology is really mature by then,” Schumann said.

“This will mainly concern some of the high-price niches, as the main volumes in global garment production will still stay in Asia, owing to the increasing weight of the Chinese consumer market in the global mix,” he added, Jens Kastner, Contributing writer. Published by Nikkei Asia.

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