Podcast: Novel Fabrics + Robots -- Sustainable One-size-fits-all Fashion Revolution

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Podcast: Novel Fabrics + Robots -- Sustainable One-size-fits-all Fashion Revolution

In this episode, we talk about how a fashion company spun-off from MIT has developed the world’s first truly one-size-fits-all garment.

In this episode, we talk about how a fashion company spun-off from MIT has developed the world’s first truly one-size-fits-all garment.


(0:50) - Is This The Future of Fashion?

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What's going on friends? Do you have that one t-shirt that you simply cannot let go of because it just fits so good? Well, I got some good news. There are folks at MIT that are working very hard to make every article of your clothing fit that well without spending too much money. So, if that's got you excited then buckle up and let's get into it.

I'm Daniel, and I'm Farbod. And this is the NextByte Podcast. Every week, we explore interesting and impactful tech and engineering content from Wevolver.com and deliver it to you in bite sized episodes that are easy to understand, regardless of your background. 

Farbod: Alright friends, as you heard, we're talking about fashion, which is kind of rare on this podcast. And that's our fortunate because Dan and I, we're enthusiasts. We love talking about clothes. It's probably what? Watches, cars, technology, clothes. That's the basis of our fashion.

Daniel: Gotta put food in there somewhere.

Farbod: Oh, food, sorry. Another big one.

Daniel: Food's number zero.

Farbod: Yeah. That's just like, you know, assumed by our listeners. But anyways, yeah, we're talking about fashion. Specifically, we're talking about this team at MIT that's working with a fashion company on this next generation of fabrics. Now, really quickly, this company that they're working with is called the Ministry of Supply, and it's got a fun little story. Ministry of Supply was founded in 2012 by MIT students. It was actually a Kickstarter that they initiated after, I think, a summer of research with the goal of creating the best possible dress shirt. They were aiming to have a dress shirt that didn't really wrinkle, that was good at regulating temperature and it looks like the knit they came up with was very similar to what NASA was using for their temperature regulating materials that's used in spacesuits and whatnot. So anyway, they had this Kickstarter, it did really well. It grew from just being dress shirts to clothing of all sorts and they're very, I guess, they're in the leading edge of materials within the clothing industry, within fashion. And the idea they're working with, with the MIT researchers, is smart fabrics. As in, not like sensors embedded in it, but fabrics that can mold to the wearer's body, instead of using this, you know, four size fits all. You got small, medium, large, extra large. So, it's a pretty interesting concept. And I like the origin of it because you and I always talk about how we like to have a minimalist wardrobe, not just because we don't want to overwhelm ourselves with options, but it's also good for the planet, it's good for your wallet. And these folks are trying to combat this massive trend within the fashion industry, which is ultra-fast fashion or fast fashion in general, that leads to a lot of waste, that leads to people ditching their clothing because it's just not out of style or the size doesn't fit anymore.

Daniel: Well, I think that's probably the main thing is a lot of people, they end up, myself included, right? I would say I'm aspirationally a minimalist with my wardrobe. And I think, man, if I find a couple key things that I know are reliable, I know are durable, and I know fit perfectly, I would love to make those my main rotation and then not be super exorbitant and keep buying extra stuff. But the challenge is I'm having a hard time finding stuff that's like always reliable, always durable, stands the test of time and also fits perfectly. That's a pretty hard area where those Venn diagram, the circles in the Venn diagram overlap is pretty, pretty small. So, I like a lot what these people are talking about because they're talking about using cutting edge technology in the textile space and in the robotics space to kind of, I guess, cause some sort of type of awakening or innovation in the fashion space that not only allows us to minimize waste like you mentioned, but then also basically democratizes or potentially democratizes like a perfect tailored fit. But it uses technology to make that accessible to a lot of people. And I think we've talked about getting made to measure clothing. And I bought made to measure suits. And that's what I wore when Nellie and I got married. And I had a pretty decent experience with that. But I think this even overcomes a lot of the challenges that people have with that.

Farbod: For sure.

Daniel: Some inconsistencies in measuring or manufacturing. We're kind of beating around the bush here. But I think it's really interesting how this team from MIT and Ministry of Supply are coming together to like take a lot of cutting-edge tech that we saw in textiles, a lot of cutting edge tech that we see in robotics and in design software and kind of weave those together.

Farbod: Oh, weave that's it.

Daniel: Because they make a woven fabric here. Weave those together to create this fabric that is able to be manufactured in a smart way. And then the secret sauce, I would say, is the post treatment of the fabric where they're able to change and modify the shape of the garment using heat. So, the punchline there, I think that they mentioned is like, stores might only have to keep one or two sizes per skew, per item in stock, right? Which allows them to reduce their waste, which allows them to sell these items to a lot more people without worrying whether you've got this certain specific size on the shelf. And then they use heat to help it tailor to fit every single person perfectly. And one of the things that they mentioned is, if you and I both wear a size large shirt, that doesn't mean that we're actually the same size. And that's one of the misnomers they think is like, everyone thinks everyone fits into a t-shirt size, but truly every single body is different. And in this way, they're able to kind of create between their computerized knitting, which is like a really smart sewing machine and the robotic heat activation basically make every single person have a garment that fits them perfectly and you don't need to put them in a bucket like your size large or your size medium or your size small.

Farbod: Yeah, and from the perspective of the manufacturer, right? One of the biggest challenges they have every season is “What is the range of sizes that we need to include with all these new products we have coming out?” And predicting how much to manufacture of every size for every skew. They don't wanna over-manufacture because if they do, then it's gonna go on clearance and it might not sell and end up in a landfill, which is bad. And I think for a lot of the manufacturers, what they really don't wanna do is under-manufacture, where they have a lot of demand for specific sizes and they just simply do not have those anymore. So, this approach allows you to be as inclusive as you can possibly be, while minimizing the risk of producing because now you're not worried about the different sizes. I really wanna, I'm fascinated by this heat treatment process, you already mentioned it, but they have this woven fabric, this knit that is composed of material that reacts to heat and therefore shrinks in shape. And we mentioned Ministry of Supply, but they're working with the MIT Self-Assembly Lab, just quickly wanted to know. They actually have years of experience working with dynamic textiles. They have two well-known projects. One was the dynamic sweater, which could shrink or fit to you, depending on how you would like that during the cold season. And then they had masks when COVID was at its peak to make sure it's fitting right to your face.

Daniel: That's pretty sweet.

Farbod: Pretty sweet. But when they were talking about the clothing, obviously they have this demo, which I really suggest everyone to go and check out. It's like a minute and a half video. Super cool to see it in action. You see this demo of an off the rack dress, then fit it to the person. And you're like, wow, that fit is out of this world, which I think is great. But as a man who does a lot of suit shopping, like you said, the large for t-shirts is kind of annoying because I might be in that realm of sizes, but it might not fit perfect, but it's okay because it's a t-shirt. But suits, you're spending so much money, and if it fits even a little bit not correctly, it really shows. So, where my mind quickly went is, oh, it would be great if I could just put on pants. And sometimes I might need the waist to be completely tailored in, but I want the legs to be a little bit looser. And then fine tuning that heat treatment to exactly what I want. So not even like one specific fit to exactly what that customer wants out of the profile for the rest of their attire. That's the biggest advantage of this process.

Daniel: No, I agree. And I think we've kind of, I wanna do more justice to the actual technology and kind of jump in to what the secret sauce is here. Cause I feel like we've kind of.

Farbod: We were too excited. We went straight to the…

Daniel: We went straight from the intro to the so what. I think that there are four main ingredients, let's say to the secret sauce, the technology they've got here. And it kind of makes sense. There's a progression in the story. So, the first ingredient they've got is active yarn. And this is what we're talking about here. It's a special type of thread that almost acts like it's got muscles. So, under certain stimuli, the fibers are able to shorten and under other different stimuli they're able to stay long. And so, in this case they've specifically designed this active yarn to be specific toward localized extreme heat. So not the heat that you would experience in your washer or dryer, but they say I think a 300-degree heat gun with very localized heat is what's able to cause these threads to shorten locally and that's how they're able to tailor into a specific design, but the way that they get there is they take these active yarns and then they use a computerized knitting machine, which is a really smart machine and it basically they've designed it in a way that when they knit the yarn they're able to kind of predict when a heat stimulus is applied how a certain garment might shrink in a certain area, right? So, you don't want a garment to garment to only shrink in length when heat is applied. You don't something that's baggy and looks like a crop top but you also don't want something that only shrinks.

Farbod: Laterally.

Daniel: Laterally, as opposed to the longitudinal, laterally, right? And you've got like a really, really skinny t-shirt, but it's super long and it looks like you're wearing a giant sock. So, what they've done is they've designed this knitting using the computerized knitting machine that allows them, they call it a four-dimensional stretch, or four-dimensional shrink and stretch. So, they're able to get 3D stretch and shrink out of it, but then they're also able to apply the heat to get that fourth dimension to get the shrinking. And the way that they apply this heat is the third ingredient in the secret sauce here, which is the robotic heat application. And it's a small robot, multi-axis robotic arm that moves around the body with a heat gun. And think about it as like a really, really tiny hair dryer with concentrated heat. When it heats up a part of the garment, the threads shrink a little bit. And that's how they're able to tailor the size to a specific person. And this part specifically, if you've watched Westworld and watched the multi-axis robotic arms, like weaving forming a person or a robot, I guess, this looks very, very similar to that. And then the fourth secret part of the secret sauce, which I think kind of is the lifeblood that keeps everything together, is they've designed very specific software that controls the knitting machine, controls the robot, basically allows them to start with a blank, start with the garment that fits on the rack before it's been shrunk or anything, and then designed for very specific outcomes, regardless of the person's body shape. So, you know, multiple different body shapes, make sure that you're knitting and then shrinking the garment in a proper way that someone who's six foot six and 150 pounds, it fits them just as well as it fits someone who's five foot six and 150 pounds, or who's four foot six and 150 pounds. Every single person is sized and shaped differently and they're trying to make sure that this, by way of trying to reduce waste, but also by way of trying to make sure that everyone can get a tailored fit. They wanna make sure that their one size fits all garment actually fits everyone as opposed to, I feel like a lot of one size fits alls are really one size fits none.

Farbod: Exactly, exactly. And it's a, I'm happy you brought up the software that goes into making this sauce happen, because there's a fun little story behind the robotic arm software specifically. They actually tagged in one of the students that was studying architecture at MIT. And that researcher was the one that was tasked with coming up with the control software for this robotic arm. So, they came in, no fashion experience, none of that. And they were like, hey, could you help us out with like specifically pointing this heat gun to get the desired geometry that we want out of this dress, which I think is pretty sick. But yeah, with that said, I guess we already jumped into this a lot. We're super excited about how it can be applied to dresses and suits and different articles of clothing to minimize waste and generate bespoke clothing really at a reasonable and scalable level. So, I want to talk about the scalable portion.

Daniel: Yeah.

Farbod: These folks at the Ministry of Supply have now over a decade of experience with manufacturing, high-quality, high-end clothing. And when asked about if they can produce this, they said, we have the capability. We're just now waiting for the demand. So, this 4D weaving robot that they have to create the fabric, they are able to scale this to meet, I guess, based on what they're saying, whatever demand there is in the market.

Daniel: Well, and I think one thing that's interesting about weaving and making knitted clothing from a yarn, as opposed to maybe we were talking about suit jackets, as an example, cutting that from a sheet of fabric, is also when you're knitting using yarn, there's very little waste. There's not big scraps of fabric that get cut off, and then you sew these scraps together. You actually start with yarn, and then the end product is this fully encompassing, woven in this case, they built a dress as their proof of concept, woven dress without much waste at all, which again goes back to their theme here, which is they're trying to minimize waste, democratize this perfect fit to everyone. I thought that was an interesting way of attacking the first part, which is you're not gonna have as many items that you have to keep on the rack. People aren't going to throw their clothes away because it's actually going to fit them. And in the same way, even the manufacturing method, even though it's very scalable and it's able to be industrialized, also doesn't come along with a lot of waste, which oftentimes when you're scaling something up from a production perspective, you end up with more and more waste as you get to the more and more industrialized processes. And I thought that was pretty interesting as well.

Farbod: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I think one of the things I like when doing a little bit of research about Ministry of Supply was their commitment to being as environmentally friendly as possible. They make a note that since their founding, they've been carbon neutral. They make a point of saying that, I believe their most popular items are created from recycled materials 100%. Because that's one thing I had in mind. I'm very big on natural fibers, just because it's easier on the earth, it's easier to recycle, and I don't know how I feel about something that's completely composed of synthetic fibers which allows us to do this level of formation and potentially minimize the weight. So, it's like a, you gotta weigh the pros and cons. So, seeing that one of the companies leading this charge is very cognizant of environmental impact of the fashion industry, that's pretty nice to see.

Daniel: Yeah, and I think one cool twist that they mentioned here that I didn't originally see coming, let's say, is I think, at least, in one way this idea works where they said, as styles change and as fashions change, someone could take their existing garment that they bought using the SmartNet and then they could take it back into the store and be like, oh, I actually, I don't like the baggy fit that you gave me before.

Farbod: That's so 2020.

Daniel: Yeah, skinny pants are back in. Can you make my baggy pants skinny? And then they could apply the heat again, which would turn these like loose knit baggy pants into something that was more trim fitting. Similarly, they said if like someone's body changes size, you're fortunate enough to lose a lot of weight. You don't have to go buy a whole new wardrobe again. You could take it back into the Ministry of Supply, whoever's selling it, and they could retailer it to your body. They also talked about if someone liked their knit dress and they wore it all through the winter, but then now it's really hot outside and they wanted to wear something shorter in the spring and summer, they could have this in there and it would shrink the fibers again so then they could go from wearing like this long-knit dress into something that's like knee length and more comfortable. Obviously, I don't think it's reversible. So, they can't apply a lot of localized cool and help our waistband stretch around the holiday season when we're always carrying a little bit extra holiday weight. But I did think that was interesting as well. Just thinking about the drivers for what causes waste of clothing. Changes in body, changes in style, changes in season. These at least one way, right, making the garment smaller. You don't experience as many of those issues and drivers for clothing waste, which again, makes it awesome here. But I think ultimately the driver that's gonna make this most interesting for everyone, at least personally speaking, is like the ultimate perfect fit being accessible to just about anyone.

Farbod: Because even when I have a piece of clothing that like I'm not absolutely in love with in terms of design and maybe even quality if it fits right then it can kind of…

Daniel: The fit is everything.

Farbod: It's everything.

Daniel: And I think that's what makes people so excited about having tailored clothes That's why people like dressing up and wearing a suit that fits well.

Farbod: For sure.

Daniel: That's why everyone's got that favorite t-shirt. That's like a little bit too old and maybe it's a little bit worn out and maybe it's even got a hole in the armpit…

Farbod: But it just fits right.

Daniel: But it just fits right. And that's how I feel about the sweatshirt right now. I joke every time I put it on, I'm like, Nellie, look at my brand-new sweatshirt, it looks nice. And she's like, dude, this is seven years old. It's maybe one of the older sweatshirts you own, but it fits right. So, I wanna wear it all the time. I feel like being able to engineer that, and there are a bunch of engineers here, but being able to engineer that and provide that on a reliable basis to all your customers, as opposed to randomly, in my case, stumbling upon a sweatshirt in a gift shop in Cape Cod and being like, wow, why does this fit perfectly? I think that that's probably the major benefit. And if they can truly replicate this perfect fit for everyone, I think that there's definitely going to be some challenges in terms of scaling robot arms with heat guns at scale and store, or getting people comfortable to stand there while a robot with a heat gun is operating near them. But if they're able to somehow overcome this barrier I think that the perfect fit will be the selling point and all the reduction of clothing waste will just come as an awesome byproduct.

Farbod: Totally agree with you, man. And what a nice trip down memory lane to Cape Cod.

Daniel: Yeah.

Farbod: Yeah. Happy you mentioned that. Now I want to go to Cape Cod. I think that's it, right?

Daniel: Yeah.

Farbod: Yeah.

Daniel: Can we wrap it up?

Farbod: Yeah, folks, have you ever just had that t-shirt that you could not let go of? Well, you're not alone having a perfectly fitted article of clothing is difficult. Especially given that if you do want something made to measure it's pretty expensive usually. Well, these researchers at MIT have collaborated with the Ministry of Supply, a fashion brand, to come up with a fabric that when he treated with a robotic arm precisely can be the perfect article of clothing for anyone. That means they can take a dress off the rack, put it on you, and make it fit exactly the way you like. And this isn't even confined to dresses. It works on shirts, pants, whatever you want. And with this approach, they're hoping to really fight against fast fashion because now you're not really worried about your style not being stylish anymore. You're not worried about throwing out your clothing because it doesn't fit right anymore. And you can minimize waste that comes from traditional manufacturing approaches. So, it's a win, win, win, win. And the best part is Ministry of Supply has actually said if there's demand for it, they can scale this up to whatever's required. So, if this has got you hype, make sure you hit them up so we can all get this going.

Daniel: Yeah, exactly. I think strength comes in numbers here.

Farbod: Yeah.

Daniel: If they see the demand for this type of product, it's definitely something that they're willing to scale and bring into reality, which would be awesome.

Farbod: Hey, if you're listening on Instagram, tag them.

Daniel: Yeah.

Farbod: It's the best way to get a movement going, right?

Daniel: Exactly. Before we wrap up, there is something that I want to mention.

Farbod: A passion plug?

Daniel: A little bit of a passion plug. But I also have something sad. But I think it's good productive constructive feedback. We recently got a review, a one-star review. Our first one. From Moogy98, who said, I see what they're trying to accomplish, but it's what every young engineer is talking about. The research seems OK, but they need to deep dive and actually talk about things that are working, not just the potential of new tech. And Moogy98, we appreciate your feedback.

Farbod: Absolutely.

Daniel: It's definitely something that we're going to work on and try and get better. And I think, as immediate feedback, we are happy to share with you that we're trying to work more on being able to do deep dive interviews with the folks that we do cover on this podcast. So, our short form 20-minute podcast episodes, we're going to follow those up. Similarly to the way we did. Do you remember what episode it was with Machina?

Farbod: Ooh…

Daniel: Give me a sec.

Farbod: I think early one hundreds.

Daniel: Yeah. I think it was…150, episode 150.

Farbod: The interview or the actual episode?

Daniel: The interview.

Farbod: Okay.

Daniel: We covered Machina Labs in one of our early episodes on episode 118. And then we had the opportunity to follow up with the CEO of Machina and episode 150 and do a deeper dive on their technology and the story and why they think it's gonna work. So, appreciate your feedback, Moogy98. We're gonna take that into account. And I think we're, if you're willing to stick along, we've got some actionable feedback there and we're gonna go turn that into reality with a series of interviews with shakers and movers in the industry to give us that deep dive on technology that you're itching for.

Farbod: Yeah, I'll add a little note. I think this approach of focusing on what's real and possible and doable versus the dreaming aspect of some of these Academics or even industry folk. It's a tough balance for us to even hit because we do want to dream. We do want to believe that nuclear fusion is possible within the next five years, just like it has been for the past 50 years. So, I like to think we strive to keep a healthy balance of the moonshots and what's close and possible within the next year or two. But that's really good feedback. We'll try to add disclaimers on, I guess, our mindset and bring in those technical experts wherever we can.

Daniel: Exactly. And obviously we hope you keep rocking with us long enough to see that stuff come to fruition.

Farbod: We love the one star just as much as we love the five stars.

Daniel: And I think as a, the plus side of that, the other side of the coin is our passion plug here. And folks, if you don't know yet, we're launching a podcast or, whoa, we already have a podcast. We're launching a newsletter that accompanies the podcast. It's the NextByte newsletter. It's going to deliver as much or more value that we feel this podcast is delivering to you through your ears, but then you'll be able to also get it through your eyes. And Farbod mentions, there's a lot of times where he doesn't have time to listen to a 20-minute podcast episode. He just wants to be able to skim a newsletter for two, three minutes.

Farbod: Absolutely.

Daniel: And that's exactly what we've targeted here. We're designing this newsletter to be skimmed, where you can get the tastiest, juiciest bits of the secret sauce from each interesting piece of technology that we cover on the podcast, but you'll be able to read it. And we're excited about that and we're excited to take, I wouldn't call it expertise, but maybe some of the skills that we've developed in communicating and technology, making it accessible for people. We're gonna try and take the awesomeness that we've developed doing the podcast and make an awesome newsletter. So, we'd appreciate if you'd go sign up for a newsletter. You can go to thenextbyte.com and click on the button, read and sign up. We'll also have a link for that directly in the show notes if you're interested. We would love to invite you as one of the founding readers of our newsletter.

Farbod: Yeah. And as always, folks, thank you so much for listening and we'll catch you in the next one.

Daniel: Peace.

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