antique sewing machine

Higher wages and pressure to bring back manufacturing to the US could result in millions of job losses in clothes-making industry in Asia

A combination of higher wages in Asian countries and a trend for bringing back manufacturing to the US could dismantle large parts of Asian economies, many of which depend on the textiles and clothes manufacturing trades for huge portion of their national income. 

An interesting video report by the Financial Times points to this possible future, but adds that in practice, for now, “almost all of the world’s T-shirts and jeans by millions of cheap workers, mostly women, watching over sewing machines”.

And beyond T-shirts and jeans, the vast majority of jobs and tasks in the clothes manufacturing sector in general is still done by humans. 

ft video clothes industry
An image from the FT video, called Robots and the World of Work

And while that could change over the next few years, and certainly the next decade or so, the first robotics and automation systems aimed at large-scale industrial manufacturers can still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As the FT report points out, “With an abundance of cheap labour available in Asia, humans still make more financial sense.”

But the report notes that as political groups campaign to bring more jobs back to the US, coupled with the rising cost of labour in China and other Asian countries, a new group of robotics and automation technology startups is looking to transform the way clothes are made.

But while a new generation of tech companies is indeed developing robotics and automation systems which could perform the often complex work required in clothes manufacturing, they face many technical challenges.

This is because while a computer – using new and very powerful artificial intelligence software – can simulate the physical movements required to make clothes, in a virtual environment perhaps, the actual mechanical motion required in the real world is beyond most machines that have been built so far.

Of course, most people will have an idea of what a sewing machine looks like, or a loom, or even an overlocker. These and other many machines have been driving the clothes manufacturing trade for centuries, but none of them – even now – could be classed as AI-driven, in the way robots are.

Yes, they are automated, but primarily in the most simplistic mechanical sense, not in what might be called a complex computational or human “thinking” sense.

Working at a sewing machine, for example, requires a human to make hundreds or maybe thousands of tiny adjustments per minute – with hands, feet, eyes, and so on – to themselves, to the clothes they working on, and the machine they are working with.

While the computing power is available to process such large amounts of data, and simulate the entire process, the mechanical systems are still being worked on.

Some of the companies working on such systems are mentioned in other articles on this website.