It was the dawn of the jet age the US Air Force had a serious problem. Early jets were suddenly complex and flying them was more demanding. There were a lot of crashes - a few days saw a dozen planes go down. Sorting through crash reports pilot error was the big problem. The question was what were the root causes?
Attention turned to training, mechanical issues, checklists and cockpit design. In the later there are issues of control type and layout and also the pilot. At the time military pilots ranged from about five foot four inches to six foot two. To get to the bottom of things Lt. Gilbert Daniels, fresh out of physical anthropology from Harvard, measured nearly 150 dimensions of over 4,000 pilots. The hope was to find and characterize averages or ranges of averages that could be used by cockpit and control designers.
He picked ten of the most relevant measures.. leg length, reach and so on and narrowed things down to an average range of heights from five-seven to five-eleven. Then all of the pilots were compared to the averages of the ten relevant measures. The expected result would be a subset that would be within one standard deviation on all ten. The answer was zero - there was no average pilot out of a sample of 4,000.
People who are looking for clothes that fit well are familiar with the problem average sizes. They were good enough measures to allow mass produced clothes to take off and prices fall to the point where clothing could become a statement of style for average people. It produces a lot a waste and lowered expectations of fit quality and access to design that might fit a personal style. Clothing can be tailored, but most people put up with lower quality in return for very low prices and the opportunity to always buy something new. Some groups are at a built in disadvantage - plus sizes are too difficult to deliver to size using current production and sizing techniques. And there are some groups who are out of normal size ranges who have to pay dearly for custom clothing if they want to express a personal style. There are many problems and a good deal of opportunity for change in an industry that does about $1.5 trillion a year.
A few years ago I supported a Planet Money Kickstarter that funded reporting on the making of a simple t-shirt from planting the seeds to taking delivery. The result was a fascinating serious that made two points. The standardized shipping container has had an enormous impact on the world's economy since about 1980. I'd put it's impact up there with computerization, although it has certainly used a lot of that technology. The other point is that apparel manufacture is complex with most of the steps, even in the developing world, being automated. Most of the steps but one .. sewing.
Sewing has been fiercely difficult to automate. A variety of approaches have been tried, but fabric stretches and threads move non-linearly and are not simple flat sheets. A skilled seamstress ( in the developing world over 90% of the sewing is done by women) is performing difficult computations and manipulations.
A few researches took the hammer and tongs approach of taking high resolution very high speed (1000 frames per second and higher) video of the fabric and figuring out where every thread is and how it is moving. This information goes to small manipulators - fingers if you will - that move the fabric into just the right position as sewing takes place. Researchers at Georgia Tech made the most progress and a company was spun off - SoftWear Automation. It was snapped up buy Tianyuan Garments Company - one of the largest apparel manufacturers in the world. They've announced a plant in Little Rock, Arkansas with 21 production lines of Sewbots. The cost goes to about thirty cents a tshirt - about half that of a woman in Bangladesh sweatshop. The factory will produce 23 million tshirts a year for Adidas - all made in the US by a Chinese company. Costs will fall furthers in the future.
There are any number of vexing social problems that should be solved. Very few people will be needed for automated sewing production. Currently about five million women in Bangladesh alone depend on the meager wages they get from the lowest cost apparel makers. Conditions can be awful and the wages far too low, but for many this is the step above true poverty. Of course other things need fixing such as education and the place of women in society, but fully automating apparel will put real pressure on millions of people. One hopes we don't repeat the terrible labor phase problem that plagued the Industrial Revolution, but I wouldn't count on it.
Current systems only work for a limited range of clothing like t-shirts, but jeans, dress shirts and uniforms are considered solvable problems that will fall in the next year or two. Within five years the industry should start feeling an impact. There are other problems. A good overview of current ethical and environment issues is Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline.
Back to the sizing problem. Apart from lower costs and domestic assembly, automated sewing offers the potential of clothes for any human size and shape at a reasonable cost and for almost any design. The technology for body scans is well developed and could be scaled quickly. Paired with flexible manufacturing lines - probably within overnight delivery range and quite possibly owned by companies like Amazon - your measurements could be matched to designs in a day or two. About five years ago I predicted this could happen in ten years. I think we're still on track, but it is likely to be a premium for awhile with the major focus being slashing the costs of current fast fashion and mass manufacture and creating an assembled in the US branding.
Other potential changes like the disruption of how design is done and who owns it and perhaps low cost seriously advanced machines for home or fabric store use. I haven't carefully reviewed the IP, but perhaps there's more of an opening than for 3D printing.