The Pentagon’s made plenty of progress towards slicker, more specialized uniforms for soldiers. Better camouflage patterns? Check. Sweat-wicking t-shirts? Oh, heck yes. Threads that can take a pulse and monitor pee for signs of a chemical attack? Getting there. Then there’s the Kevlar underwear.
But there’s still one big problem with soldier attire, at least as far as the military’s mad-science agency is concerned: Someone’s gotta stitch the clothes together.
Enter the sartorial specialists at Darpa. Usually the Pentagon’s far-out researchers are more concerned with four-legged robots and preventing pandemics than with the contents of a soldier’s closet. But they’ve doled out $1.25 million to fully automate the sewing process. The agency aspires to “complete production facilities that produce garments with zero direct labor.” And those are a lot of garments: One 2010 estimate put the military’s annual clothing budget at $4 billion dollars.
The company on the receiving end of Darpa’s award, SoftWear Automation Inc., has so far developed “a conceptual” version of just the automated system that the agency’s after. The basic principle behind the company’s innovation, according to its website, is a robotic system that relies on an extremely precise monitoring of a given fabric’s “thread count” to move it through a sewing machine in the proper direction and at the right pace. Dr. Steve Dickerson, the company CEO and a robotics and engineering researcher, didn’t respond to request for comment.
Along with co-authors from Georgia Tech, Dickerson elaborated on his robo-tailoring science in a 2010 paper, presented at a robotics conference in Tokyo. As it turns out, automated garment production has, for decades, been something of a holy grail among clothing manufacturers. But despite hundreds of millions spent on research since the 1980s, the report laments that nearly all industrial sewing relies, archaically, on human hands.
The automation process proposed by Dickerson works something like this. First, an “overhead, pick-and-place robot” grabs the necessary pieces of fabric and places them at the head of a sewing machine. The appliance itself would be equipped with “machine vision” capabilities, specific enough to spot and track individual fabric threads. That intel would “provide fabric location information” to actuators that operate the sewing machine’s needle and thread, and “budgers” — motorized balls, underneath the sewing machine that latch onto the fabric via vacuum seal — that move the material to and fro.
Should Dickerson’s automated sweatshop materialize, it could offer mucho savings to the military’s billion-dollar garment production process. According to the company, automated sewing “appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs less than in China.”
Not to mention far fewer allegations of human rights violations. An estimated 50,000 workers are employed by contractors producing military garb, many of them earning “[wages] below the poverty line [and] the median sewing wage in the industry,” according to a 2010 report from The American Prospect.
Of course, it could also mean the decimation of jobs worldwide, as well as dubiously constructed garments. But we’ll let our fellow Conde Nast publication Vogue worry about that last part.