Automated Mini-Factories Will Bring Back Custom-Fit Clothes

It's about time.

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Aug 1 2014, 4:40pm

Personally, my shape is nothing at all like the supermodel ideal that most clothing is manufactured for. I'm quite short, pretty curvy, and have a very small head. It means I have to hem nearly every pair of pants I buy, the majority of cuts of shirts are unflattering, and I've yet to find a pair of earmuffs that don't hang down around my chin. 

Going shopping is a slap-in-the-face reminder of these "imperfections," according to the conformist capitalist mold that modern day fashion forces thousands of unique body types into, and I know I'm not alone in that feeling. I've often dreamed of a revival of the old-school bespoke clothing that's custom-tailored to your individual shape, size, and taste.

Now, emerging trends like automated manufacturing and 3D-printed clothing are making that a realistic possibility.

Technology has the potential to break the current, broken apparel manufacturing model: overproduction, outsourced cheap labor, waste and pollution. One idea is to make clothing on demand, from designs customized by consumers online. Over at Cal Poly Pomona university, they're building automated micro-factories that can spin out a virtual order in just 30 minutes, and are small enough to fit in the back of a retail store.

"A single automated and integrated mini-factory contains order processing, design, pattern and marker generation, dual-sided dyeing, printing, labeling in a single pass, optical cutting, robotic handling, sewing, finishing, and shipping," explains the website of Virtual Inventory Manufacturing Alliance, which is working with the university to "transform manufacturing into the internet age."

Customers use a personal avatar to create just the right fit and design they want, and as soon as the order is placed and paid for, a digital print of the custom pattern is spit out at the factory. The print is scanned by an optical cutter that chops it into individual pieces, and materials are colored with a new fast and environmentally friendly dying process called "active tunnel infusion." The cuts are then sent by production robots using RFID to the correct automated sewing stations.

This video shows the process, via AM4U—"Apparel Made for You":

Environmental benefits and cost savings aside, this kind of DIY robotic clothing production could make it actually practical to bring about a sort of artisan clothing movement 2.0. This, if you ask me, would be a huge win for consumer self-esteem, and a nice little stick-it-to-the-man blow to the capitalist machine that wants us all to want to look like the model on the billboard and buy as much overpriced apparel as possible to achieve that elusive dream.

But is it realistic? Well, there are a bunch questions to answer first. For one, do we all really want to be designing our own clothes? Probably not. I sure don't. But there's a lot of opportunity here. Virtual fashion design using online avatars is increasingly common, and I expect it will only get more sophisticated over time. Some startups are also open-sourcing designs so people can build on each other's ideas, opening up a new opportunity for independent fashion designers trying to break into the biz.

Several tech-savvy bespoke clothing startups—MaterialiseContinuum—are experimenting with digital fabricators like Electroloom to manufacture virtual designs, an even smaller and more DIY process. But 3D printing technology is still quite immature, not to mention only compatible with a limited selection of materials at this point. Yeah, an OpenKnit machine can spin out a 3D-printed wool sweater that's ugly in an ironic way, but we're a far cry from self-manufacturing an entire wardrobe to rival a shopping spree at J Crew.

Still, it's a promising trend. Artificial intelligence guru and Google futurist Ray Kurzweil recently predicted we'll be printing our own clothes in less than 10 years, and the Cal Poly mini-factory is gearing up to start selling directly to consumers. Rock on guys. I for one can't wait for a digitally-designed homebrew outfit where the pants are the exact right length and the shirt is perfectly flattering, and hopefully all without a $200 price tag.