DARPA developing robot sewing machines with zero direct human labour

DARPA’s latest robotics project may have potential for optimising profits but raises serious concerns about job losses

Garment factory workers may soon lose their jobs if a project by DARPA succeeds. The US-based Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants robots to produce garments with zero direct human labour.

The agency is keen on developing automated sewing machines capable of mass producing garments and eliminating direct human involvement. Whereas the DARPA system may help cut production costs drastically, it raises serious concerns about job losses. In the US, there’s around 500,000 workers contracted by firms that make uniforms for its military, which means a significant number of people could potentially render jobless.

Nonetheless, DARPA has already awarded a $1.25 million grant to SoftWear Automation for work on the automated sewing system. The system is called ‘Automatic Sewing of Garments Using Micro-Manipulation’. According to DARPA, the numerically controlled automated sewing system will “track fabric movement by observing passing threads and under servo control move the fabric under the needle stitch by stitch”. Already, Softwear Automation has a working “conceptual” version of the automated sewing system. The conceptual system will sew using thread count in the fill and warp directions.

The system will have an overhead pick-and-place robot whose function will be to grab fabric pieces and put them at the head of the sewing machine. A precise thread count mechanism will ensure the system moves the fabric through the sewing machine appropriately. The machine’s needle and thread will be operated by an actuator capable of determining fabric location as budgers under the system move the fabric.

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