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DARPA looks at developing robots to sew uniforms

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June 18, 2012

The SoftWear system uses an overhead 'pick and place' robot system to move garments betwee...

The SoftWear system uses an overhead 'pick and place' robot system to move garments between work stations

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U.S. military uniforms may not be the most fashionable of clothes, but there are a lot of them. Every year, the Pentagon spends US$4 billion on uniforms and over 50,000 people are employed in their production. In an effort to cut costs and increase efficiency, DARPA has awarded a US$1.25 million contract SoftWear Automation, Inc. to develop “complete production facilities that produce garments with zero direct labor is the ultimate goal" - in other words, a robot factory that can make uniforms from beginning to end without human operators.

Robots have been used in the mass production of garments for decades, although this has mostly involved lasers cutting patterns in stacks of fabric or automated sewing machines carrying out very simple tasks. Machines in general and automation in particular have speeded up the making of uniforms, but it is still labor intensive. Worse, U.S. law requires that domestic sources be used whenever possible, so the costs are even greater than if the work was outsourced overseas.

Completely automating the process would allow for considerable savings, but garment making is one industry that has not easily lent itself to the introduction of robots. For one thing, fabric is very tricky to work with. It’s floppy, it folds, it creases, it crumples and the edges are often very irregular even if cut with a laser. At the same time, the pieces of fabric have to come together exactly right or stitches won’t go in properly, panels won’t match, buttons and holes won’t align and even something as simple as a zipper won’t work.

Worse, even something as uniform as a, well, uniform comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes that need to be accounted for. Over the past 30 years, roboticists and engineers have sought solutions to these problems, but with only limited success and with few solutions that were cost effective.

Softwear Automation’s solution is to focus on the industrial sewing machine and working out how to modify it and add robotic support mechanisms to cover all aspects of garment making. Sewing machines require the fabric running through them to be kept at constant tension. Also, the floppy and irregular fabric needs to be properly positioned. The Softwear system does this by first using a standard “pick and place” robot to move the fabric from station to station.

The 'budger' uses a vacuum to grasp fabric and position it
The "budger" uses a vacuum to grasp fabric and position it

Once on the station’s sewing table, “budgers” come into play. These are robotic actuators made out of a hollow rubber ball with holes in it. These use a vacuum to “budge” the fabric into position. The sewing machine itself has a modified working head with servo-controlled dogs doing the work of an operator's hands to guide and maintain pressure on the fabric.

The key, however, is the imaging system that uses uses inexpensive, high-resolution cameras that weren’t available until now. This imaging system doesn’t use linear measurements like centimeters or inches. Instead, it counts the threads in the cloth to calculate position and distance with an algorithm taking into account fabric folding, thread flaws, and fabric edge irregularities. This imaging system and the robotics that it serves needs to be very fast because a human operator can make 5,000 stitches per minute, so there’s no time for the machines to pause and think.

The implications for a successful robot garment factory goes beyond trimming the U.S. military’s wardrobe budget. It also holds out the possibility of moving such jobs back to the developed world where robots would replace sweat shops. It also means that another class of unskilled labor would vanish along with so many others.

Sources: Federal Business Opportunities, Softwear Automation, Inc., Proceedings of 2010 ISFA 2010 International Symposium on Flexible Automation (PDF)

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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11 Comments

"It also holds out the possibility of moving such jobs back to the developed world where robots would replace sweat shops. It also means that another class of unskilled labor would vanish along with so many others."

If robots are doing it, then no "jobs" would be returning. They would just disappear, producing 50,000 unemployed people just from the lost military contracts alone. It's what the Luddites lamented from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, this is exactly what the real Luddites protested: the loss of skilled jobs to automation. And these workers are skilled, even if you think otherwise. Just try sewing a garment yourself sometime if you think it's "unskilled" work. I guarantee you it's not going to look anywhere near as good as what you'd find in a store.

The ultimate uniform wouldn't be computer-sewn, but rather computer-woven. 3D body scanners would take measurements of a soldier. Then a uniform is woven in one piece using something akin to today's filament winding processes for composites. No stitches, no seams, just one continuous piece of fabric from sleeve to sleeve, from collar to hem, perfectly fitted to each soldier.

Gadgeteer
18th June, 2012 @ 06:10 pm PDT

Being able to develop a fully automated robotic textile factory with a $1.25 million fund when other large billion-dollar corporations have failed many times?! Sounds like somebody is trying to con the governement to me. $1.25 miillion is probably only enough to cover 4-8 months of research if this company is truly serious about building such a blueprint. The development costs of devleoping such software and proprietary applications to run these robots will exceed $1.25 million alone.

Sambath Pech
18th June, 2012 @ 08:47 pm PDT

I'll just bet the garment workers union is just all atwitter about this particular idiocy.

TheRogue1000
18th June, 2012 @ 10:19 pm PDT

So let me get this straight; DARPA is proposing cutting 50,000 US jobs so that machines can make uniforms currently made by Americans (service uniforms are currently made in USA for obvious reasons but at higher prices than they can be made overseas in sweatshops.) The DARPA machine's research and development will be subsidized to the tune of millions if not billions of Pentagon money so that a handful of private robotics companies can make money that currently goes to hard working families. I'm sure that the components that make the up the robots are already manufactured overseas. So is everyone going to work at Starbucks and Wendy's? This is more madness, thanks to the 1%, who clearly want to live in a world all by themselves with the rest of humanity in the unemployment line while their factories operate without humans. All paid for by our tax dollars.

Steve Mcnamee
19th June, 2012 @ 08:16 am PDT

I operate a very large Maka dual CnC router and with the proper programing and custom setup, you can make anything with the push of a button(s). I'd imagine this is idea to be pretty cool. I mean, who wouldn't want a lazer cut suit or dress that you custom tailored yourself via phone app?

Jay Pro
19th June, 2012 @ 09:00 am PDT

@Gadgeteer - this is exactly what the role of technology has been since it's inception 10,000 years ago (if one considers agriculture as being the first technology) - every day it is sold with the pitch that it makes people more efficient. And that cannot be stopped. I expect iRobot to come out with a Roomba that picks strawberries in a few years, especially after seeing the other article about the BioTac sensor that is more precise than a human finger in identifying materials.

Of course, the response to the Luddites over the centuries has always been "don't worry, in 10 years there will be jobs we cannot imagine today" and that has held true - in fact, it will be true that 10 years from now there will be jobs we cannot imagine today. The really big difference is that those upcoming jobs will require levels of intelligence and education that most people simply will not have. If society cannot figure out what to do with all the superfluous people, this is where the next social upheaval will come from.

Bob Fately
19th June, 2012 @ 09:26 am PDT

Great... More jobs lost. If the military were outsourcing abroad, I might understand, but they are simply going to take away jobs from Americans - 50 000 jobs!!! What the hell are those people going to do for a living? Join the military maybe...

Chau Vo
19th June, 2012 @ 09:29 am PDT

Beyond the other inaccurate assumptions the one about this "unskilled work" coming back to the US is the larger fact that the One%ers will see to it that newly trained serfs in the 3rd world will get the new factories in a complete technology transfer. And these new modern industrial serfs will still only be paid a few rupees more than their predecessors.

StWils
19th June, 2012 @ 10:36 am PDT

Really? We need to sew faster and cheaper? Let's get real - clothing costs the same or less than when I was a kid 40 years ago. Is the military truly interested in saving money?

I think this goes hand-in-hand with nano technology and other emerging tech developments. Automation would allow high-tech fabrics to be used in a high-security environment. It basically makes uniforms a weapon of sorts, requiring security clearance. There are a lot of possibilities. You could have a uniform with GPS, monitor vitals and more.

While I love the inventive possibilities, the military was designed to protect citizens. Economically, I see this is a step to do the opposite: ruin the welfare of 50,000 citizens. How can that be justified?

StickerSkinz.com
19th June, 2012 @ 11:19 am PDT

I personally will be happy to see the military streamline this. Those skilled workers can then begin making real clothes for people who do not look good in GAP/American Apparel clothes and want to buy US made clothes that last more than a month. Think there's no market? Maybe it's because the utter lack of supply has forced the would-be market elsewhere.

Charles Bosse
19th June, 2012 @ 04:29 pm PDT

DARPA does come up with some great ideas and inventions, but I hate to say it but this one a a very bad one. America is slowly becoming infected with an epidemic of stupidity.

If they want to streamline and reduce costs why not reduce the amount of number of uniforms for each branch and make them the same ! ! ! The Navy and the Marines( who are supposed to be part of the navy) have at least 10 to 15 different approved uniforms between services including BDU's (Battle Dress Uniforms and Dress uniforms). Then you have different uniforms for the Army, the Coast Guard, the Air Forces, and then Special Forces for each branch wear whatever they want.

Have one dress uniform for each service branch and one BDU that is reversible. Light camo on side and dark on the other !

Putting Americans out of work that are supporting the country and the troops is a BAD idea DARPA. Come on DARPA, use some common sense. It's definitely not rocket science.....

RESISTANCE
21st June, 2012 @ 10:07 am PDT
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