Your Nikes Could Be Made by Electroadhesive Robots
Nike has become one of the first customers of robotics startup, Grabit, that uses electroadhesion
The robots can assemble a shoe 20 times faster than human workers
Nike plans to move factories closer to big consumer markets in the U.S. and Europe
By Kelsi Kobata
In Sunnyvale, California, robotics startup, Grabit, Inc., is using electroadhesive technology—a type of static electricity—used to operate and produce automated products for manufacturing and service industries. Four years ago, Nike invested in Grabit and has since become loyal customers of the company.
For many manufacturers, material handling is labor intensive, expensive and time consuming. Grabit has automated the process using the same static cling that allows a balloon stick to your hair. This technology has the ability to handle a product as fragile as an egg to a heavy 50 pound box. It also requires ultra-low power consumption making it energy efficient. Grabit works with companies in the apparel, aerospace, footwear and automotive industries, like Samsung, textile company Esquel Group, and of course, Nike.
Automation is highly desirable for many companies that create physical objects. Amazon hosts an annual robotics challenge to have researchers build solutions to their various warehouse problems. Grabit’s unique use of static electricity makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd. Harsha Prahlad, Co-founder and Chief Technology and Products Officer of the company, already has three dozen patents related to electroadhesion.
The “upper,” or the flexible top section of a pair of Nike shoes requires around 40 pieces stacked on top of each other, which are then heated so they fuse. This process takes a human worker an average of 10 to 20 minutes to complete. Grabit’s machine can finish the task in 50 to 75 seconds, 20 times faster than human hands.
The machines are designed to work with human employees. The technology determines what pieces are needed for the upper and where they need to be placed. Portions of a glass table light up, which helps to guide the human employee, who must physically set everything into place. The robots use flat pads of electrodes that are charged to create an electric field that attaches to any surface. With this new technology and automated system, the company believes an efficient manufacturing system won’t threaten jobs, but rather will provide better opportunities for employees.
There are 591 Nike factories worldwide, many of which are located in Asia. 49 factories remain in the United States and employ an average of 130 workers. A number of facilities with Grabit’s machines have been established within the past month, and there will be a dozen more operating in China and Mexico. Nike can now attempt to relocate its manufacturing facilities closer to the large consumer markets in Europe and the United States.
Dana Kara, research director for robotics, automation and intelligent systems at ABI Research, states, “So far robots have been too expensive to justify their middling performance in apparel manufacturing.” The machines cost over $100,000 a piece, plus additional funds for service fees for the software and electroadhesive pad replacements. “But technology and financial incentives are changing in a way that points to a major shift in the balance between human and machine labor,” he said.
The apparel industry is a $200 to $300 million market for robotics companies, and e-commerce is an even greater opportunity. Grabit makes electroadhesive conveyer belts guided by software to maneuver heavy products.
Robotics companies and their customers continue to search for cost-effective solutions to create efficient and convenient manufacturing systems that benefit both industries. This balance is well represented by the partnership between Grabit and Nike. The shoemaking process is doubled in speed, and Nike can now attempt to relocate closer to its large consumer markets. The innovative technology, such as Grabit’s use of electroadhesion, are allowing their partners the opportunity to accelerate advanced manufacturing and ultimately change the economy of their business.