A project funded by the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute has led to a new robotic assembly process that stiffens garment pieces by laminating fabric with water-soluble thermoplastic polymer. This opens way for use of industrial robots in garment sewing, which has been difficult due to robots’ difficulties in handling limp textiles.

Despite being universally adopted throughout traditional manufacturing, industrial robots have failed to find a place in garment sewing applications due to the robots’ difficulties in handling limp textiles. This makes the global apparel industry strongly dependent on, manual labour.

The outputs from the ARM-funded technology project “Robotic Assembly of Garments” created considerable impact by taking the first steps in revolutionising this trillion-dollar industry via a new robotic assembly process that stiffens garment pieces by laminating its fabric with water-soluble thermoplastic polymer.

This flexible robotic system was developed to handle and assemble fabric pieces into garments. Traditional sewing machines were controlled via Robot Operating System (ROS) to achieve synchronised operation with the robot. The polymer utilised in the process can be easily removed through washing and can be recycled for multiple process cycles. The technology was successfully demonstrated at Bluewater Defence production facility and is being further matured for more complex sewing operations in ARM-TEC-20-01-F-15 (usecase: medical gowns), ARM-TEC-20-02-F-03 (usecase: face mask).

Other participants in the project were Siemens Technology (PI), Bluewater Defence, Sewbo, and University of California at Berkeley.

Several core robotic technologies were developed in this project to enable flexible and robust garment assembly. The team identified “Robotic sewing of pocket flaps for military uniform pants” as the use case to demonstrate the core technologies. Once the use case was finalised, the team identified and developed various robotic skills (pose estimation, bending, welding, stitching) required for the task. These skills were developed in ROS in a modular and extensible fashion so that they can be utilised for different scenarios.

The robot operation was orchestrated with other machine stations – sewing station, welding station and folding stations – to ensure smooth and synchronised operation. Fabric pieces were laminated and treated by Sewbo with the treatment process optimised to ensure the desired stiffness. UC Berkeley developed simulation models to support the various process steps. After developing and validating the core robotic technologies, the Siemens team integrated and validated the system operation before conducting the final demonstration at Bluewater Defense facility in Puerto Rico.

The team developed a novel system and method for using robotic systems to accomplish sewing operations including folding, joining, and stitching fabrics. In the demonstration, this system was successfully able to sew the pocket flaps for military uniform pants. The project served as a critical first step in proving the viability of this technology. The system is capable of producing parts that satisfy the Bluewater Defence quality requirements. While the robotic system currently has a higher cycle time than human operators, it has the potential to lead to greater automation and shorter cycles with further development.

Siemens, Bluewater Defence, and Sewbo are working to further improve this technology. Several ongoing ARM projects build upon the IP generated in this project, extending its applicability to PPE production in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and more advanced garment assembly.

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