Automating couture could be among the defining movements for today’s generation, creating on-demand fashion as readily as a Netflix episode. A departure from the mid-century revolution of mass production, mass customization revels in cheap technology scaled for the home. Given the global market for textiles and garments is estimated to be worth some $300 trillion, it’s a prime industry for automation. Yes, even the fashion industry is being taken over by robots. What’s that mean for shoppers, designers, and the people being replaced by machines?
These are questions to be discussed at this month’s SxSW festival in Austin, TX, with SoftWear Automation Inc. CEO KP Reddy. Creating fully automated robots for cutting and sewing garments, Reddy is looking to disrupt a labor-intensive industry with technology for higher returns and to bring more jobs to the U.S. (the U.S. is currently the largest importer of garments in the world). Ahead of his SxSW presentation, Robotic Manufacturing Will Deliver Customization, I caught up with Reddy to learn firsthand the developments in high tech fashion.
The upside to automation
Starting with the obvious benefits to automating garment sewing, SoftWear can enable a highly customized experience for end users. Reddy gives the example of a bridesmaid’s dress, where a short list of styles can be fully customized for individual body types and personal style. “We’re freeing ourselves from the mundane aspects [of fashion] and retaining design integrity,” explains Reddy.
A less obvious perk to automating garment creation is the application of software testing to the fashion industry. Reddy recalls the methods of A/B testing typically used in website development, delivering two different homepages to two separate populations to study reactions. “With automation, we can do A/B testing with fashion designs — now business can serve all body types,” he says.
Likening automation in fashion to the craft brewery movement, Reddy sees robotic technology shifting the worldview and presenting consumers and small businesses to go against the status quo. “Big brands can have a challenge on their hands if they don’t keep up,” he explains, going on to note the market opportunities for big brand competitors.
“I think the newer brands that have less infrastructure are already looking at technology like ours,” says Reddy. “They were first involved in e-commerce, dealing with online buyers,” he explains, citing the success of Warby Parker as an example.
What happens to robot-replaced jobs?
Reddy also touches on the more fascinating and controversial aspects of automation. Noting the average age of laborers in the fashion industry (late 50s or early 60s), the robotics CEO says there’s no pipeline for talent in garment factories. And while the average 20 year-old in the U.S. isn’t likely to want to work in a factory making jeans, Reddy was surprised to see similar trends in other countries.
“A 20 year-old in Bangladesh is looking to get out of small villages and into the big cities, but many factories are in the middle of nowhere and have trouble finding talent,” Reddy tells me. “Many of these factories say they’re OK for now, but in 10-20 years they won’t be. We’ve been pleasantly surprised from the international companies visiting us.”
As with any industry, automation begs the question of what jobs will be available to those being replaced by robots. For Reddy, his company will ultimately need to hire people to deploy their robots. He also sees automation as a marketing channel for those larger brands that will need to stay relevant as more technology influences the fashion industry, able to promote less garment waste and more fabric recycling to new, ecologically conscious markets.