Robotics in Garment Manufacturing Starts with Sneakers

The field of robotics has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years.  A trend has emerged around using robotics for custom automation.  Since the 70s, industrial robots have been used in the fabrication of large, rigid things like automobiles and planes.  Recent technology has increased the flexibility of our controls systems.  Fields like machine learning, computer vision, and AI have made more possible with robots.

Illustration by The Fashion Robot.

Illustration by The Fashion Robot.


In the apparel industry, the robotics craze is just beginning.  It’s starting with sneakers.  It started in February 2012 with Nike’s introduction of the Flyknit.  Nike hired knitting experts at Fab Designs to develop the technology to make the Flyknit.  What does knitting have to do with robotics? 

The Flyknit pushed improvements in technology of Stoll Knitting Machines.  Stoll introduced the ADF knitting machine around the time of the Flyknit’s introduction.  The reason why the ADF was such an improvement has a lot to do with manufacturing time savings.  ADF feeds yarns into the machine independent of the knitting carriage.  This means that the carriage doesn’t have to return to the start to pick up yarn-carriers when changing yarns.  If your home printer had to go to its starting position to pick up ink every time it printed a row, it would take a long time to print anything with more than one color.

The tech Race

The Flyknit also arguably promoted growth among competitors forced to try to keep up with Nike.  New balance introduced their 3D printed shoe.  Under Armour introduced the shoe made with bra technology.  Adidas has fought hardest.  They made their own knit shoe “Prime Knit” and won the court case against Nike’s 500+ unique patents for the knitted shoe.  They then made an automated embroidered upper.  Soon after announced that they would be moving all their manufacturing back to Germany.  In Germany, they set up the “Speed Factory” to make shoes using, industrial robots.  Our heroes.

(For the fashion lovers, here’s a visual history of the Flyknit via Hypebeast.)

Apparel manufacturing has been a highly automated and technical field for a long time.  Yet, the ability to manipulate fabric remains a human one.  Making sewing robots is Softwear Automation.  They started working on government grants and venture backing.  While they are currently doing bulk work for Under Armour, they’re still long ways from being able to assemble a full garment.  


Here’s the most recent public talk by the founder of Softwear Automation on NPR: