A chance meeting with a friend introduced then-fashion content marketer Anastasia Simon to SoftWear Automation, a startup that manufactures sewing robots. The Louisiana-born marketer was almost ready to move on to LA after spending a few years in Atlanta.
Good thing we got to keep her. Since joining the SoftWear team, Simon has crafted the messaging behind SoftWear Automation’s innovation — going beyond its hardware robotic component into a detailed message of sustainability and custom fashion. She paints a very different picture from the norms of the textile industry, which often looks like a world of cheap labor and mass manufacturing.
Since 2015, SoftWear Automation’s Sewbots have produced 2 million home goods including bath mats, pillows, mattresses, and more. Each sewing robot maps the item’s surface as it sews and has unique skills to address fabric handling and usage. After some hiccups in the industry (such as adoption and misunderstanding), these Sewbots can finally tackle the supply issue that’s been plaguing the fashion industry for decades — over/under supply of items and high costs of manufacturing. The startup raised $4.5M earlier this month to expand their team and develop new technology.
As marketing manager, Simon heads up their communications: translating the tech jargon to the fashion industry and dispelling any Hollywood-themed misconceptions about the sew robots. “They are not from The Jetsons,” she says.
Simon talks to Hype about making the leap from fashion and style writing to working with sewing robots, why sustainability is essential to SoftWear Automation, and why those sew robots aren’t here to steal your job.
One of your main core values for the fashion industry is sustainability. How did this attract you to SoftWear Automation?
I’m very into sustainability and ethics. If the average consumer understood where and how their clothes were made, it would be mind blowing. People inside the industry actually know that child labor and exploited low-wage labor in general are the backbone of the industry. Whether it’s in Bangladesh or Latin America, everybody’s using cheap labor and exploiting their workers. Then there’s the aspect that environmentally, the apparel industry is the second-largest polluter after oil and gas. For me, as an environmentalist, I’m definitely really big on not funding people that are exploiting the environment or people.
I wanted to work for a brand that’s sustainable and ethical. I sat down with the then CEO of SoftWear, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, and I got the job despite my plans to move to Los Angeles. I was following my passion; I’m a big advocate of that. I’m not a tech-savvy person — but it’s not the technology that brought me here. It’s what we’re doing, the capacity to change the world. If our machinery can reduce waste in the apparel industry and its carbon footprint, it can make the air a little cleaner and have less trash in a landfill.
What does your position entail?
I’m the Marketing Manager at SoftWear Automation. I was hired to do sales initially, but it just so happens that I’d been blogging for a long time with a background in Content Marketing, and eventually worked my way up.
A lot of what I do is taking the technical information and translating it for apparel people, textile people or to the general public. Often working with engineers, they can go over your head really quickly.
Everybody from NPR to Women’s Wear Daily and The Business of Fashion have written about us, so I work with the media to get us in front of the right customers at the right time. Plus, working directly with our CEO and our Chief Commercial Officer to make sure that we’re getting out the right message. It’s fun, creative, and super interesting. It’s also in Atlanta and no one would think this is here.
What are some of challenges you’ve encountered in explaining this technology?
The first challenge is that a lot of people assume that since there’s so much technology, this has already been done. Most people assume that since manufacturing cars is already automated, why wouldn’t this (Sewbots™) already exist ? And we have to explain to them that, ‘No, it’s still the same way it’s always been done for the past 100 years.
Along the same lines, what are biggest misconceptions people have about the sew robots, including taking jobs away?
The first one is that people think our machines are humanoid robots, like The Jetsons. A very cool Android walking up and doing the sewing. That is not what it looks like. It looks just like regular industrial machinery.
As it relates to jobs, we always get that question. The first thing you have to think about, when we’re discussing the U.S. and Europe and high-labor markets: no one here sews. I have friends who went to school for fashion design and they’re actually expert sewers. They don’t want to go work at a factory and sew the same side seam all day. We’ve outsourced that kind of production since the seventies. Once the jobs go, the skill goes — if there’s no jobs, why would someone train for that skill? The average age of seamstresses in the U.S. is about 56 years old. They are near-retirement age and when they retire, there are no young people coming to take their place.
In high-labor markets, a sewing factory doesn’t just create jobs for seamstresses; it creates jobs for people who do logistics and warehousing and distribution. It creates jobs for people who have to deal with fabrics and fibers. These are net new jobs created along from fiber to store across the entire supply chain.
Tweet: What we envision is that for every robot that we sell, we can create at least 50 jobs. https://ctt.ec/0p849+
Aside from creating jobs and sustainable fashion, what’s the market impact of SoftWear’s robots?
It can greatly reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing and then transporting goods globally. It’ll also free up people to be more creative. I read an article where the writer went to India and talked to people that worked in sewing factories, and on the side, they have these businesses where they’re making beautiful designs. To me, what we’re doing will free up artisans to not have to sew the same seam all day to get into the creative work that ignites their soul.
You’re also going to be able to get more custom pieces in a way that’s affordable and efficient. Right now, if I go to a custom tailor, it can take six weeks for them to get my measurements and fit everything. Where I see this going is you do a body scan, and by the time you get to the cash register a robot has put together your custom dress according to your measurements.
What’s next up for Software Automation?
There are a couple of projects we are working on. From where I’m sitting I can look out into the lab and see machines that are sewing towels, pillows, and bath mats all being sent to customers in the next few weeks. We’re also working on a t-shirt line. We’re going to do a fully automated t-shirt going from a roll of fabric all the way through to a finished item. That will be available at the end of 2018, top of 2019.