By early 2018, Tianyuan Garments Co., based in the Suzhou Industrial Park in eastern China, will unveil a $20m factory staffed by about 330 robots from Atlanta-based Softwear Automation Inc. The botmaker and garment company estimate the factory will stitch about 23 million T-shirts a year. The cost per shirt, according to Pete Santora, Softwear's chief commercial officer: 33¢.
“Around the world, even the cheapest labor market can’t compete with us,” Tang Xinhong, the chairman of Tianyuan, told the China Daily about the factory in July. The company, one of the biggest apparel makers in China, supplies Adidas, Armani, Reebok, and other major brands.
“The Tianyuan story shows that the labor cost for each T-shirt in the Arkansas plant is unbeatable,” says Jae-Hee Chang, a researcher in advanced manufacturing at the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva. The machines are part of a new generation of industrial robots that Chinese manufacturers like Tianyuan are using to overcome the constraints of higher wages and aging workers. As China’s labor force has shrunk over the past five years, employers have hiked wages more than 10 percent a year to lure better-educated, younger workers.
The garment industry has been slower to automate than others, such as automobiles and electronics. Developing a robot that can match the dexterity of a human hand to manipulate and stitch fabric is an expensive proposition, Santora says. Stitching a dress shirt with a breast pocket requires about 78 separate steps. Tricky, but such a bot is coming, says the chief executive officer of Softwear Automation, Palaniswamy Rajan: “We will roll that out within the next five years.”
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