Nike Robots Could Bring Manufacturing Stateside, but Replace Humans
Technological advancements, especially when it comes to automated manufacturing, are developing quickly. We reported earlier that a Chinese apparel company is setting up shop in Arkansas using newly developed automated systems to create apparel. In that feature, we discussed that, while some processes are easily automated, others just can't replace human skill. These tasks usually require dexterity and attention to detail that robots just can't replicate.
That is, until now.
Nike is using new technology to automate construction of footwear "uppers." The upper on a shoe is the part that sits on top of the foot. Due to the intricate stitching and fusing, robots have been unable to perform this task on the level that humans can. This new technology, however, uses static electricity to allow robots to manipulate the threads in front of them.
Here's how it works, according to Fortune:
The Grabit machines in shoe factories look more like oversized panini presses than electronic humanoids. They’re also designed to work with flesh-and-bone human employees. Software decides the best way to stack pieces of the upper, then lights up portions of a glass table, showing its human partner where to set things down. A platform covered in electroadhesive pads descends to pick everything up, while cameras monitor the progress. The machine moves over to a partially finished shoe and turns the electric charge off, dropping them into the right configuration and feeding them into a heat press. It can take a human worker 10 to 20 minutes to arrange the pieces of the upper; Grabit’s machine does it in 50 to 75 seconds. Over the course of an eight-hour shift, a machine monitored by a single employee can make from 300 to 600 pairs of shoes.
According to Fortune, Nike invested in a tech startup called Grabit that uses electroadhesion (the same static electricity that makes your hair stand up), and has been filling its factories with machines that can work 20 times faster than human workers. By the end of this year, Nike will have about a dozen of these robots up and running in China and Mexico.
This is similar to the automated apparel manufacturing we discussed before: By creating a system that cuts down on manufacturing price, companies like Nike can bring their manufacturing back to the U.S. and Europe to be closer to their main client bases. And, unlike the fully automated system in Arkansas, this one still involves human labor, so it isn't fully cutting out job prospects for Nike employees.
There are currently 49 Nike factories in the U.S., each employing about 130 people. Compare that to 1,300 people in the average Nike facility in China. Greg Miller, CEO of Grabit, told Fortune that shifting to automation will no doubt threaten some jobs, efficient manufacturing creates better jobs for workers—like we talked about before with apparel manufacturing moving toward more artisinal ventures, like dress-making rather than T-shirt making.
By bringing more manufacturing back to the U.S. and Europe, companies like Nike can more quickly deliver orders. This would have an enormous effect on promotional products companies looking to increase their turnaround times.