June 15, 2012 in Advanced Manufacturing, ATDC News

Startup Chronicles: SoftWear Automation

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With a background in mechanical engineering, Steve Dickerson doesn’t sound like your garden-variety clothing industry entrepreneur. But if the former Georgia Tech professor has his way, the manual production line days of seamstresses hunched over sewing machines will soon go the way of the dinosaur. For the past few years, Dickerson, the CEO of SoftWear Automation, Inc. has worked diligently to develop innovative technology centered around automated sewing machines. His vision? To transform what is currently a labor-intensive industry into a capital-intensive one and help breathe new life into the nation’s struggling apparel trade. The idea for the ATDC Select company came about in 2007, when Dickerson was asked to participate in a seminar on the future of robotics. “I realized that the fabrication of sewn items had almost entirely disappeared from the U.S., which is a real problem,” he said. “And all of a sudden it occurred to me that the traditional metric of motion should not be meters or inches, but rather thread count in the fill and warp directions.” From there, Dickerson joined forces with Georgia Tech’s Sundaresan Jayaraman, who assembled a team of researchers from the School of Mechanical Engineering, the College of Computing and the Georgia Tech Research Institute to work on the project. Patents and funding grants soon followed. How does SoftWear Automation’s proposed technology work? An “overhead, pick-and-place robot” grabs fabric and places the pieces at the head of a sewing machine. The system is equipped with machine-vision capabilities that can spot and track individual fabric threads, providing precise monitoring of the thread count to move the fabric through a sewing machine in the proper direction and at the right pace. That concept is attracting lots of interest these days. Earlier this month, SoftWear Automation was awarded a $1.25 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Once the technology is unveiled, it has the potential to provide significant savings to the U.S. military’s billion-dollar garment production process – eliminating direct labor and allowing cutting and sewing at costs less than in China. Armed with the DARPA grant, the members of the three-person startup are looking to successfully develop, launch and commercialize the innovative robo-tailoring technology and move into the next phase of growth. This will likely be accomplished with considerable support from a team at Georgia Tech, since the university will receive a portion of the funding through a subcontract. “SoftWear should be the provider of automated sewing machines in about two or three years,” said Dickerson, a seasoned local entrepreneur who previously founded Dickerson Vision Technologies, Inc. and CAMotion, Inc. “In the meantime, we’ll be putting together a team that will be trying to commercialize the automated production cells. Imports of U.S. garments run about $70 billion a year, so the market is phenomenally large.”

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