The t-shirt you are going to buy next month is probably being made at this very moment. It could be that a woman of about 30 years old, from a humble family in Vietnam or Bangladesh, is sitting, right now, in a poorly ventilated, overcrowded factory, sewing an article that you do not even know you need yet.
Sixty per cent of the clothing and footwear we buy under the labels of major multinationals are produced in countries of Southeast Asia. Perhaps you already knew that. What you do not perhaps know is that, at this very moment, about 15,000 kilometres from the Vietnamese factory where the woman is sewing, a group of IT engineers is looking into whether a robot could do her job.
Over the last seven years, the North American startup Softwear Automation has been developing a machine capable of stitching anything from a towel to a pair of trousers, totally autonomously. It is the most complicated step in the textile process, and requires a precision and skill that only human hands have been capable of until now. But Atlanta-based company has launched LOWRY, one of the latest ‘sewbots’ or sewing robots. The secret lies in the incorporation of a camera so that the machine can take photos while it sews, to control its movements better. The invention has already seduced the North American retail chain Walmart, which has invested two million dollars to fund its development.
It is not science fiction, it is the here and now. At the end of 2016, Adidas launched its first range of running shoes made by robots. The production process uses 3D printing and minimal human intervention. The same result can be achieved with just 136 people rather than a thousand, which has enabled the brand to shift some of its production from Asia (where 55 per cent of its products are currently made) back to its native Germany.
First, textile manufacturing went from Europe to North Africa, then from North Africa to China and, subsequently, from China to Bangladesh, as part of the quest for ever greater profit margins, secured by shifting to countries were workers are paid even less and have less rights.
The next shift may well be from Bangladesh to robotic manufacturing operations in Europe and the United States. After all, they do not need a wage and can work without rest. And, of course, they do not complain.
According to companies like Softwear Automation, in the not too distant future, it will work out even cheaper to invest in technology than to hire the workers with the lowest wages on the planet.
The end of low cost manufacturing in Asia?
Countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bangladesh or, more recently, Burma have been used as the world’s textile sweatshop for decades. “When wages went up in China, companies turned to even cheaper countries with millions of poor people ready to work for a pittance. Around 50, 60 or 70 euros a month, at the most,” says Eva Kreisler, coordinator of the international Clean Clothes campaign in Spain (Ropa Limpia).
In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh drew attention to the consequences of this unstoppable low cost industry. A total of 1,134 textile workers died, buried under the rubble of factories that did not even meet the most basic safety standards.
Some progress has been made since then – such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, signed by over 200 companies, but the abuses and accidents at work are still constant. “Sometimes the conditions are akin to slavery,” insists Kreisler.
The fashion industry has clearly become a vital source of income for this part of the planet. In countries like Cambodia, it accounts for over 80 per cent of all exports. Hence the fear over the arrival of the ‘sewbots’.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), over 6 million jobs in Southeast Asia risk being lost to automation. Two thirds of their jobs could disappear, especially the lowest skilled and most repetitive ones, where people are easier to replace with machines.
The ILO report warns that ‘sewbots’ could be four times more profitable than their human counterparts as of 2020. If the overall cost works out lower than offshoring, production could be transferred from factories in places like Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) to sites in others like California.
The ILO has already called on Asian countries to take measures to avoid massive unemployment and the very real prospect of a step backward in their development process, recommending they take advantage of the opportunity to change their export-oriented model and to start selling to their own middle classes.
Spain’s Clean Clothes Campaign coordinator is more sceptical. “I think there is still a long way to go before that happens. There are still many countries where people are paid so little that it’s still worth producing there.”
The fourth industrial revolution
At the factories of Waixo, a Spanish startup, sewing machines have been running smoothly alongside printers and computer screens for some time. The company specialises in digital fabric printing. “Today, any design can be achieved with just a few clicks,” explains Adolph Muguerza, CEO of this company based in Biscay (Spain). For Waixo, technology is the key to faster, cheaper and, above all, more personalised production. “The most important thing nowadays is response time; being able to produce a minimum batch at breakneck speed.”
Muguerza also underlines the environmental advantages of these new smart factories. “You can’t imagine how much fabric is wasted when the work is done manually. As much as 10 per cent more is utilised when it is computer cut.
At Kniterate, another Spanish startup, based in London, the advantages of 3D printing are being applied to the fashion industry. Its printers use yarn bobbins to make anything from scarves to t-shirts. As Gerard Rubio, one of its developers, points out, “Digital manufacturing represents a great opportunity for local production. I think we are likely to see manufacturing gradually coming back to Europe.”
This phenomenon is known as reshoring, but it is not only driven by technology. The return of manufacturing is also driven by the wage increases in China and ever-faster changes in fashion seasons.
It seems clear that this reshoring will destroy jobs in Southeast Asia, but will it create more here? For FEDECON (Spanish Federation of Garment Companies) the answer is ‘yes’. “A large part of the process will be automated, but people will be needed to control these robots,” argues its president, Ángel Asensio.
According to the European Reshoring Monitor, some 30 garment companies have returned to Europe since 2014, and they have created around 700 jobs. This represents an average of about 25 new jobs per country. Jobs will be created, but will never reach the same levels as in the past and, of course, those who want to work will have to train to be able to work alongside their metal colleagues.
Since 2015, robot sales have increased 15%, with China in the lead. The forecasts speak of a fourth industrial revolution that will be ten times faster than the first. But it is still unclear who will be the winners and the losers of this transformation.