Automation is a huge social problem for the United States, but it’s going to be even more so for Asia and Latin America. Prophets of free trade and capital mobility laud American corporate investment in nations such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka like Jesus spreading the true religion to the heathens. It will SAVE THEM! Thank you American capitalists, thank you for your machines that will throw these workers out of the low-paying exploitative jobs they have into nothing.
While robots are already an established part of the manufacturing process for cars, electronics, and semiconductors, they have been much slower to take over production of sneakers and clothes.
One of the main reasons is that robots have a hard time handling the wide variety of soft materials used to make complicated products like a pair of sneakers. A Nike shoe can have as many as 40 different materials in its upper alone, all of which need to be precisely stacked and fused together to make the shoe. This is quite different from a cellphone plant or automotive factory, for example, where the materials involved tend to be rigid and fairly uniform, and robots can pick things up using a vacuum, magnet, or mechanical pincher.
In garment and shoe manufacturing, no single method has offered an ideal solution. A vacuum may pick up pieces of leather, but it can’t deal with mesh. Mechanical pinchers fumble with pieces that have different degrees of flexibility and stickiness. Magnets, while great for handling metal, are useless when it comes to fabric.
A California company called Grabit has a novel technology that’s solving this problem for Nike, and soon perhaps a number of clothes manufacturers as well. Grabit uses electroadhesion—basically the cling of static electricity—to let robots pick up and handle objects of all kinds. The company says the same technology is capable of maneuvering an egg, soft fabric, or a 50 lb. box.
The firm has Nike convinced. The sneaker giant acquired a minority stake in it a few years back. Now, as Bloomberg reported, Nike is installing about a dozen of its machines in factories, making its shoes in Mexico and China. These Stackit robots, which are designed for stacking fabric, can precisely position all the pieces of a sneaker upper in 50 to 75 seconds. A human worker, by contrast, can take well over 10 minutes to do the same job.
Ah, the tech bros of California, coming to the rescue again. Now Nike can continue to charge $150 for shoes, but there will be even more profit in them! Everyone wins. Except for the workers are going to lose their jobs. Thank you capitalism. Thank you.