Home Featured Conversations: Jonathan Zornow, Sewbo

Conversations: Jonathan Zornow, Sewbo


Jonathan Zornow, Inventor of Sewbo, took some time out earlier this year to talk to WhichPLM. Jonathan is a visionary, and an all-round passionate and positive person. In this exclusive interview (and part of our ‘revolutionary technology’ theme), he speaks humbly of his creation, and shares his view and excitement on the future of our industry.

Name: Jonathan Zornow

Occupation: Inventor, Sewbo

Likes: Simple solutions to complicated problems

Dislikes: Stagnation

Words to live by: Three, two, one – liftoff!

WhichPLM: Jonathan, you’re the Inventor of Sewbo: the world’s first robot to sew together a garment (as far as we’re aware). This is a huge achievement; can you tell us, in your own words, about Sewbo?

Jonathan Zornow: Sewbo is the startup I’ve created to commercialise the automation technology that I’ve been developing for the garment industry. In many ways this is not ‘revolutionary technology’, except in the sense that it’s never really been done in this industry before. These are the sort of things you would find in a car factory, making electronics, or pretty much any other consumer product out there; but there’s been virtually no headway for automation in the apparel industry.

I’m trying to bridge the gap between the traditional tools for automation – meaning off the shelf robot arms, and motion controllers, programming tools – and the apparel industry. To do that, I’m essentially bringing the materials of the industry in line with the existing automation paradigm. So, by temporarily stiffening fabrics, I’m able to make it much easier for off the shelf industrial robots to handle them like it was sheet metal or cardboard. From there, you can leverage all of the existing automation tools that have been used so successfully in other industries.

WhichPLM: You mention the automotive industry. People see, from advertisements primarily, that automotive factories use robots. Is that where you think the Fashion industry is headed? Is that where we’re going?

Jonathan: It’s hard to predict something as complex as the garment industry. With so many moving parts, it’s difficult to say anything with complete confidence. Based on the way we’ve seen automation utilised in other industries, coupled with the initial reception I’ve seen for automation in apparel, I think that it’s pretty likely that the future for clothing manufacturing would be leveraging a lot more technology than what you would see today. [Laughing] Whether or not that’s my technology, remains to be seen. In general, it’s clear there’s a real demand for this stuff. Because it’s been put to such great use in other spaces, there’s a lot of precedent for how an industry could adopt it and make use of it.

WhichPLM: Inventors are passionate by nature. What’s your passion? What drove you to invent this in the first place?

Jonathan: In many ways, it’s a personal, inherent trait of being intensely bothered by an unsolved problem. I couldn’t help but be fixated on it, once I realized this was something the industry had never really been able to overcome.

In terms of what motivated me: I was out looking for problems like this to solve. I wanted to make a career path for myself as an inventor and find problems to solve – hopefully big problems that would have a big impact with a solution, which also reflects in commercial potential.

More than anything else, though, my motivation is an inherent need to see things done in ‘the proper way’, which in this case would be utilizing a lot more technology than it currently does.

WhichPLM: We understand from previous conversations that you’ve been looking for partners (for want of a better term). Are you currently working with any manufacturing experts to help define any future requirements for Sewbo?

Jonathan: Absolutely. I’ve been touring factories all over the world; lately it’s been mostly domestic, as I try to get a better sense for the incumbent American garment industry. It isn’t exactly what I had expected, so I’m exploring it to the best of my ability. I’ve also been to factories in Bangladesh, India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka and been able to speak with a wide range of industry peers on what I think the goals of automation are and what their actual needs will be.

That’s really helped me shift my thinking from a very monolithic approach, where – I’m thinking of the car factories I’ve seen – you have huge pieces of equipment set up, playing dedicated roles with the goal of making things as quickly and efficiently as possible. But after spending a lot of time in garment factories I’ve learnt to understand how quickly the lines change over, and how the skills of the people shifting the lines are completely different from the people who sit there working on it day to day. So, it becomes a huge process when you need to re-tool an assembly operation – assuming you’d followed my initial route of large-scale, dedicated equipment.

Through talking with manufacturers I understand now that there needs to be a lot more flexibility than what I was originally picturing. It’s great to talk with people who are actually going to be using this, and finding out what their needs are.

I’ve been able to sit down with a lot of experts from the field – people who play more of a consulting role for myself and the industry – and it’s been a positive, educational experience. There’s a lot of encouraging stuff, which is nice, but there’s enough critical feedback for it to be useful too.

WhichPLM: In factories, we talk about ‘inside cycle and outside cycle’; inside cycle time is sewing products and stitching garments together; outside cycle time can be taking each component of the cut work and assembling the right side to the left side, and the front to the back etc. That’s a repetitive process that takes a lot of dexterity. Beyond sewing, surely there’s a level of automation on assembling the parts ready to be sewn as well?

Jonathan: It’s been really interesting talking to people working with fine knits, with stripes and other patterns that have to be carefully matched. For operations like you were describing, there’s a lot of room for improvement just in the outside cycles, or in extraneous processes that don’t necessarily count (in my mind) towards the time that goes with sewing because they could be done in parallel. The reality is that it’s tedious, and a lot of errors can be introduced there.

Automation technology could go a long way towards improving those processes.

WhichPLM: Sewbo develops industrial automation solutions for garment manufacturers; do you have any future ideas or thoughts for the business you could share with us? Whether it is your plans for the coming 12 months, or your possibly optimistic plans for the next 10 years?

Jonathan: One thing I’m excited about has recently been announced actually. I’ve been participating in a programme of which the proposal has been in the works for six months or so, and we just found out it’s been funded. It’s called the Advanced Robotic Manufacturing Institute (ARM), out of Carnegie Mellon, and is funded by the US Government amongst other entities, to the tune of 250 million dollars.

The goal is going to be to promote all sorts of super hi-tech manufacturing techniques. I hope that as a member of this group we’ll be able to pursue more rigorous research programmes, with an eye towards both meeting the government’s production needs and the broader market – basically everything we’ve been discussing.

WhichPLM: Fantastic. Where other industries, as well as our own, are going is very important. You’ve touched upon mass-customisation and personalization with us previously.

Jonathan: I don’t believe anybody has found the mass market for that yet. I think part of that has to do with the fact that it’s so expensive right now – or that you have to accommodate some large delay or some other limitation – but hopefully when automation is there, customization will only be marginally more expensive, if that. And we’ll see if people are really willing to pay for that.

WhichPLM: It’s already the case. Tailors and boutiques around the world, for example, are collecting the data on somebody’s measurements, putting this in, becoming part of the mass in factories, which are then becoming tailored ‘one off’ suits, and flown back to the tailor. The consumer feels as though they’ve had such personalization, but in actuality have been part of mass customization.

Moving away from yourself and Sewbo, and your current plans and future dreams – is there anything in terms of technology that you’d like to see coming into the fashion industry in the not too distant future? As a fellow visionary, where do you see the future of the industry?

Jonathan: I’d love to see some standardization. Very much speaking to your efforts and the nature of the industry at the moment, I’d like to see a de facto set of tools come out; a workflow for designing and distributing the technical production information. What I want is to be able to design on the computer, hit ‘print’, and have enough information be contained there so that, similar to a 3D printer, a robotic sewing station could actually cut and sew up a sample for you. That would involve digital printing and modern pattern making and cutting – but then it would need a lot of automated sewing as well, and that part remains to be developed. Even though the technology is still in development, it’s all definitely possible down the road – by standardizing technologies and embracing digital workflows today, apparel companies can position themselves to best take advantage of emerging technologies as they mature.

From what I’ve seen, there’s a ways to go before we’ll reach that point. There are so many different tools out there; you never know what one designer is going to be trained on, or what the company is going to be using. In all likelihood – at least from what I’ve seen – the designer is only going to be passively familiar with the modern design tools and their work isn’t going to use it at all. The most hi-tech stuff I see in a garment factory is usually pattern digitization, grading, and plotting or cutting tools.

I’d like to see a lot more technology; I’d like to see the industry come into a more modern place with regards to all of the things that could be done with software today but aren’t really – at least not to any level approaching “standardization”.

*Sewbo is currently hiring for several roles, including an Apparel Manufacturing Engineer; if this is of interest you can get in touch with Jonathan directly.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.