More and more companies in the textiles, clothing and footwear business are turning to advanced manufacturing technologies – robotic sewing machines and connected systems – to reduce the number of humans in their factories, along with the financial and social costs of employing them.
One of the largest apparel manufacturers in India, Raymond, which employs 30,000 human workers, says it plans to replace 10,000 of them with robots over the next three years.
As quoted by the Economic Times, the CEO of Raymond, Sanjay Behl, says: “Roughly 2,000 work in each plant. Through technological intervention we are looking to scale down the number of jobs to 20,000, through multiple initiatives in technology. One robot could replace around 100 workers. While it is happening in China at present, it will also happen in India.”
Meanwhile in China, as reported in the South China Morning Post, factories which may have once been considered “sweatshops” are now being transformed into hi-tech production facilities full of robotics and automation technologies where there may have been hundreds and hundreds of humans.
Available in your seismic shift
However, while there may be interesting stories emerging of plucky foreigners coming to grips with what is essentially Western technology to improve the lot of their downtrodden masses, these stories do not necessarily represent the tip of any iceberg: the overwhelming majority of clothing products in the world is still made by sweaty humans.
The seismic shift which may occur over the next few years could result in a lot of these clothing products being made in Europe and America. Sweatshops without the sweat may increasingly appear in Western countries because more companies in those regions are more likely to be able to afford the technology.
For now, China and India are among the largest apparel manufacturers in the world, but many other Asian countries, as well as many other developing countries around the world, also have huge numbers of people employed in the textiles, clothing and footwear sector.
Some of these developing countries, such as Bangladesh, have economies which are largely dependant on the clothing industry for their economic growth, according to Quartz.
And their customers are mainly in Europe and the US.
According to the most recent annual survey by the United States Fashion Industry Association, the top 10 countries in the supply chain are:
- United States
- Sri Lanka
The USFIA survey questioned executives from 30 US fashion companies, 18 of which employ more than 1,000 people.
The industry association asked the executives to select all sourcing destinations they are currently using, and China was one country chosen by 100 per cent of respondents, and 40 other countries make the list.
A partial representation of the respondents’ sourcing base is shown below in this bar chart, which uses USFIA data.
No more jobs for the boys
In a report released a couple of months ago, the International Labour Organization says the vast majority of human workers in many of the largest clothing manufacturing nations are at risk of losing their jobs to robotics and automation.
The ILO is mainly concerned with stopping child labour and other exploitative practices, which have often been reported as being prevalent in the garments manufacturing industry, in which the majority of workers are women.
The ILO says that the textiles, clothing and footwear sector is at “the highest risk of automation” out the five sectors it analysed, which were: automotive and auto parts; electrical and electronics; textiles, clothing and footwear; business process outsourcing; and retail.
Globally, says the ILO, the textiles, clothing and footwear is “monopolized by China”, which has a dominant market leadership, accounting for more than 31 per cent of global textile exports, 37 per cent of clothing exports and over 39 per cent of footwear exports.
The ILO estimates that approximately 9 million people in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region are employed in the textiles, clothing and footwear sector, adding that “significant shares” of these workers are at “high risk of automation”.
The ILO estimates that as much as 64 per cent of workers in Indonesia are at risk of being automated out of the factories, 86 per cent in Vietnam, and 88 per cent in Cambodia.
Meanwhile, according to the US government’s Office of Textiles and Apparel data, China is by far the largest supplier to the US.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, which analysed the data, says US imports of textiles and apparel products amounted to $104 billion for the first 11 months of 2015, and Asian suppliers accounted for approximately three-quarters of this total.
Sources: The Economist Intelligence Unit; US Office of Textiles and Apparel
Rise of the sewbots
The idea that robotics and automation technologies can be used to compete with cheap foreign labour might be what underpins US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s claim that he can bring back manufacturing jobs to the US.
And who’s to say he’s wrong?
As the ILO puts it: “Automated cutting machines are now becoming a widely available technology, and robots capable of sewing – sometimes called ‘sewbots’ – will soon change the calculus of textiles, clothing and footwear production.
“Sewbots are unlikely to displace current workers in Asean garment factories, but more likely to be deployed in destination markets such as China, Europe and the United States. The disruptive impact on the sector in Asean could be very substantial, as robotic automation poses a significant threat of job displacement.”
Although “sewbot” is being used in this article as a generic term to mean robotic sewing machines, “Sewbot” is a trademark of Softwear Automation, according to the company.
An example of a sewbot is Lowry, the machine launched last year by Softwear Automation. The US company is also developing something called an automated sewing machine, planned for launch by the end of this year.
Softwear Automation’s CEO, KP Reddie, says: “Our machines can run 24 hours straight – which is much longer than a traditional shift by a sewer (human sewing machine operator). Additionally, the precision is much greater so there is less wasted product.”
If this is true, millions of workers in the textiles, clothing and footwear sector across the world, not just in the Asean region, will be thrown out of work.
The ILO says: “In both China and Thailand, sewbots are likely to be more economical if investments are made after 2020. Our estimates show that human labour can be up to 50 per cent more expensive than sewbots in China, and a break-even point could be reached in Thailand by 2025.”