In the 1990s, fashion's relationship with robots was the stuff of fantasy. On the runway of Alexander McQueen's imaginative Spring/Summer 1999 show, two robotic arms spray-painted a white dress worn by Shalom Harlow. Today, the industry's relationship with automation is much more practical. In the distribution centres of e-commerce giants like the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group and Amazon (which, in 2012, paid $775 million to acquire Kiva Systems, a manufacturer of robotic fulfilment systems used by Gap, Gilt Groupe and Saks 5th Avenue) software-controlled robots routinely navigate giant warehouses, picking and transporting inventory faster and more accurately than humans, enabling services like same-day delivery. "Automated storage and retrieval systems provide high storage density as well as inventory accuracy and management, yet require a smaller footprint," explains Steve Crease, director of operations at Yoox Net-a-Porter Group, which uses ASRS to deliver its "key service level" of same-day delivery.
Sometime later this year, dozens of robots will spring into action at a new factory in Little Rock, Ark. The plant will not make cars or electronics, nor anything else that robots are already producing these days. Instead it will make T-shirts--lots of T-shirts. When fully operational, these sewing robots will churn them out at a dizzying rate of one every 22 seconds.
The Financial Times reported earlier this year that one of the largest clothing manufacturers, Hong Kong-based Crystal Group, proclaimed robotics could not compete with the cost and quality of manual labor. Crystal's Chief Executive, Andrew Lo, emphatically declared, "The handling of soft materials is really hard for robots." Lo did leave the door open for future consideration by acknowledging such budding technologies as "interesting."
When it comes to stitching together complex garments, dexterous human hands are still far superior to rigid robot arms. Much of the garment production process is already automated, from picking cotton to spinning yarn to cutting clothes. Some specialist machines can even sew buttons or pockets. However, no commercial robot had been able to piece together all the different materials to create an entire item of clothing, like a pair of jeans or a t-shirt. But last month, Jonathan Zornow, founder and sole employee of Seattle-based startup Sewbo, claimed a breakthrough: He says he overcame a common hurdle to clothing automation--the challenge of working with weak, flexible fabrics--and successfully used an industrial robot to sew together a t-shirt.
Traditional and new-school retailers alike are using AI and robotics to automate various parts of the retail chain, from manufacturing to last-mile delivery. Retail is under pressure to crack the AI code. After all, corporations in every industry are scrambling to adapt and integrate artificial intelligence into their products -- and retail is no exception. Learn how Walmart, Amazon, Sephora, Zara, and other retailers are using AI to reinvent the brick-and-mortar store. For traditional retail giants, this means entering the playing field with the likes of e-commerce behemoths Amazon and Alibaba, both of which are leveraging big data and powerful AI algorithms to transform the retail space. In addition to fierce competition, the need for a change in strategy is being underscored by the record rates at which many US retailers are shutting down. In 2017 alone, 21 retail chains applied for bankruptcy, including high-profile names like RadioShack, Toys R' Us, and Aerosoles.