Can high-tech reverse outsourcing of US clothing manufacturing?

ATLANTA — “Made in U.S.A.” could soon be back on the clothes you buy, thanks to high-tech innovation.

A company called SoftWear Automation is collaborating with researchers at Georgia Tech to develop robots capable of manipulating fabrics through conventional sewing machines.

“It is definitely going to make it competitive with manufacturing overseas,” said Georgia Tech professor Sundaresan Jayaraman. “But the key thing is not just the manufacturing cost, but the added things that are going to happen in terms of the total cost. You don’t have to wait for 45 days for a boat to come from a developing country back to the United States.”

The manufacturing of sewn products has been slow to automate because, unlike metal or wood, fabric is flexible. But researchers have developed software that can locate individual threads inside the fabric and track their positions like a grid pattern.

“That’s how we know where the fabric is,” said SoftWear CEO K.P. Reddy. "It might flex. It might bend. It might fold. We still know where those intersections of those threads are and are able to track it.”

Some of the biggest names in manufacturing and retail are interested in the technology - not only for its cost-cutting potential, but its ability to rapidly respond to changes in consumer demand. Developers say this will shorten the time garments hang on store racks — lowering the price consumers pay for them and opening new possibilities for customization.

“A lot of young designers will now, all of a sudden, be able to take their product to market because they don’t have to have a 50 million unit commitment to get it in stores,” Reddy said. “They could actually use our technology, manufacture small runs, sell it on the Internet and get lots of unique designs, versus everything looking the same.”

The research project has received major funding from the Walmart Foundation and the U.S. military.

“By rule, military uniforms have to be made in the U.S.,” Reddy said. “And the challenge we’re having with all the jobs going overseas, and all the textile industry going overseas, you actually have a gap of talent. So, even if you take cost out of the equation, the talent base has aged out.”

Bridging that talent gap does not necessarily involve training new workers in the arts of sewing, but new workers programming machines to bring back clothing made in America.

“The jobs we are going to have are going to be the high-tech, high-skilled jobs,” professor Jayaraman said, “which is exactly the kind of jobs we need here in this country.”