Robotics and Artificial Intelligence for UK Textile Industry: Leading the Circular Economy
Posted on 09/03/2018
Dr. Caroline Chibelushi, Knowledge Transfer Manager – Artificial Intelligence, discusses the opportunities for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence in the UK Textile Industry and the need to focus on circular economy.
A 2015 government-backed study (Alliance report) found that the UK textiles industry is thriving. According to the Alliance report, the sector contributes £9 billion to the economy, and could contribute a further 15,000 jobs by 2020. The potential for success in the textile industry if it is ‘reshored’ to the UK is expected to be high. For example, the UK textile industry is particularly strong when it comes to innovation and exclusivity, providing high and mid-end fast fashion, luxury and homeware products (Make It British Live). It also exports significant volumes of high quality apparel throughout the world. However, there are many challenges which are likely to come with this repatriation process. The first is a lack of skills and appropriate technology, as the industry is labour intensive. Secondly, high energy prices may restrict development as the industry is currently run by micro-sized firms with limited resources and production. Young people’s perceptions of the sector require significant changes if the UK textile industry is to thrive.
Advancements in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (RAI) have pushed the textile industry to a point where these technologies cannot be ignored. They offer competitive advantages and provide solutions for the challenges listed above, and opportunities for disruptive technologies. Tailored platform solutions enable automation in all aspects of textile fabrication – from design and colouring to fibre construction – and optimize asset utilization and productivity. Global organizations have taken notice, as RAI initiatives in textiles are becoming more widespread as companies contend for market control.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) provides a valuable contribution to revolutionising the textile industry. This includes providing integrated processes in production, quality, cost, information, statistical process control, just-in-time manufacturing and computer-integrated manufacturing. Expert systems and artificial neural networks are currently being introduced in modern textile industries.
Sewbots are becoming increasingly common. These are mostly produced in the USA and India, but currently offer limited capability; they can sew simple garments such as T-shirts and household textiles but as yet produce little that is more sophisticated. CNC technologies have solved hold-down for rigid materials, but not on flexible materials such as fabric. Fabric puckers, and shifts as it is being manipulated, hence the demand for human seamsters/seamstresses around the world.
As the UK is preparing to reshore some sectors of its textile industry, it needs to take the existing Sewbot technology to another level. There is the need to identify long-term solutions for the aforementioned challenges, which need to be explored in the context of the following areas:
- Manufacturing and energy efficient technologies
- Environmental issues
- Higher education and management of innovation
If the UK seeks to be a global leader in the textile industry, it will need to be innovative in all of these areas. There needs to be greater awareness of the interdisciplinary nature of materials and production processes, and so the industry needs to embrace cross-sector skills from manufacturing, computing, engineering, fashion, design, materials, biology and business.
The Circular Economy Concept aims to include the aforementioned areas and cross-sector skills, and is presented as a challenge to communities that are interested in innovating in this sector. This can include communities from research and development (R&D), universities, SMEs, large business organisations and third sector industry.
The concept is illustrated by the following scenario:
A person goes to the supermarket to buy food/drink packaged in recyclable materials (RM). The items are taken home, the food/drink consumed with the RM packaging saved. Having saved sufficient RM, these are taken to a smart recycling unit where there are 3 sets of intelligent robots.
Transformation process robot: this will be fed with the RM for processing, producing a white material.
Dyeing and deco robot: this will be fed with the white material from Robot 1, and will be given instructions as to how to dye the material (colour and pattern) as a background, and it will also be given a choice of patterns required on the materials. This will generate a patterned fabric that can be sewn into a garment.
Cut-Sew Robots: these are robots programmed with sample patterns of the garments to be produced. The machines will be fed with individual measurements, producing the required garments.
Fashion based on this approach will encourage the consumers of packaged foodstuffs to purchase goods with recyclable packaging, encouraging packaging companies to produce more recyclable products.
Textile manufacturing in general may still be considered as a highly polluting enterprise involving the use of harmful chemicals, the consumption of large quantities of water and energy, the generation of large amounts of waste, and the transportation over long distances of input and output materials at all stages of the manufacturing process. This may also include the use of non-biodegradable materials. The development of a new fashion industry based on recycled materials may minimise the environmental impact of the industry as a whole, and strengthens the case for cross-sector collaboration to improve the sustainability of the industry. This is arguably a better and more integrated means of communicating the need for circular economy to manufacturing industries than policies based on taxation which only adds costs to society. The reduced carbon footprint as a result of reducing refuse collection, storage and processing, combined with a significant reduction of landfill waste, will reduce environmental impact. The robots may themselves become a source of revenue for councils, making resources available for other priorities.
It may be argued that the Circular Economy concept may have limitations, such as the following.
• Job losses: Although this may not necessarily be the case, we consider the concept is seen as a way to stimulate innovation to the textile industry, create new markets and transform jobs; for example, training robots, etc.
• Increasing waste: Recycling may not control consumption. The existing overconsumption and throwaway culture contributes to increased textile waste. Approximately 14.3 million tons of textile now makes its way to landfill. This is nearly 5% of all landfill space. There is a need to conduct more research in order to identify ways of reusing these materials. For example, it could be possible to reuse worn textiles to generate material skins for robots for construction purposes, washing-up sponges, and other uses.
In summary, innovation and specifically the use of RAI with other disciplines could make the reshoring of the textile industry back to the UK a big success. For UK to be the leader in this sector, there is a need to focus on circular economy.