June 08, 2012      

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced its $1.25M contract with SoftWear Automation, Inc., a developer of automated sewing solutions, to create a robotic sewing cell for the production of U.S. military garments. In 2010, the military?s annual clothing budget was estimated at $4B. The Georgia Tech spinoff company was founded by Dr. Steve Dickerson, who observed that the fabrication of sewn items had almost entirely disappeared from the United States, including in his family?s home town of Commerce GA. Dickerson aspired to implement the kinds of automation solutions exhibited by Japanese industry in the U.S. Softwear?s contract stipulates the end goal of ?complete production facilities that produce garments with zero direct labor.? Softwear Automation will develop a complete work-cell called a Beta Unit. That includes a numerically controlled sewing machine that tracks fabric movement by observing passing threads and under servo control moves the fabric under the needle stitch by stitch. WIRED? The automation process proposed by Dickerson works something like this: First, an ?overhead, pick-and-place robot? grabs the necessary pieces of fabric and places them at the head of a sewing machine. The appliance itself would be equipped with ?machine vision? capabilities, specific enough to spot and track individual fabric threads. That intel would ?provide fabric location information? to actuators that operate the sewing machine?s needle and thread, and ?budgers? ? motorized balls, underneath the sewing machine that latch onto the fabric via vacuum seal ? that move the material to and fro. According to the company, automated sewing ?appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs less than in China.? Not to mention far fewer allegations of human rights violations. An estimated 50,000 workers are employed by contractors producing military garb, many of them earning ?[wages] below the poverty line [and] the median sewing wage in the industry,? according to a 2010 report from The American Prospect.