jonathan.wright_47187 Jan 03

Uniqlo heads towards full warehouse automation with groundbreaking robot that can fold and box clothes

Uniqlo heads towards full warehouse automation with groundbreaking robot that can fold and box clothes image
The fashion brand has come closer to full automation in its factories
After years of development, the owner of the Uniqlo clothing brand has created a robot that can fold clothes, paving the way for fully automated factories. 

Last year, Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing replaced 90 percent of workers at its flagship warehouse in Tokyo with robots - and now it is ready to go further.

The world's second-largest fashion retailer has been desperate to automate its warehouse and distribution systems, claiming a severe shortage of manual workers due to Japan's ageing population. Just over a year ago, it pledged to invest 100 billion yen (£700m) in the effort, including revamping the Tokyo warehouse.

But until now, there was still one job the robots had not been able to perform: folding clothes.

Although a simple task for humans, folding clothes requires a level of dexterity and an ability to distinguish between items that has been hard to conquer for robots.

Now, it has been achieved by Japanese robotics start-up Mujin - paving the way for Fast Retailing and others to reach full automation.

The two-armed robot, with 3D vision, can fold a T-shirt and uses suction hands to pick up plastic-wrapped clothing. It is already operating in the Tokyo warehouse, although Mujin CEO Issei Takino says it cannot yet handle every task, such as keeping belts rolled up as it boxes them. 

If the company later switches from plastic to paper packaging for its clothing, which requires gentler handling, that could also prove challenging.

Mr Takino rebuffed concerns about the impact on employment, saying: "In the case of warehouses, there are no humans to steal the jobs from because the workers just aren't there."

But aside from filling in for a shortage of workers, Fast Retailing is hoping that automation will help improve efficiency and speed. Its Tokyo warehouse now operates 24 hours a day and the company has similar plans for its other locations around the world.