A Game-changer for Garment Production

Oct 28, 2021


Professor Norman Tien, Managing Director (left) and Professor Kazuhiro Kosuge, Deputy Managing Director (right) of the Centre believes the garment industry in Hong Kong can be reengineered by utilizing today’s artificial intelligence and robotics technology.


Veteran engineers at The University of Hong Kong (HKU) will be at the forefront of revolutionary garment production research through a collaboration with the Tohoku University in Japan.

Leading the Centre for Transformative Garment Production (“Centre”), Professor Norman C. Tien, who is the Taikoo Professor of Engineering and Chair Professor of Microsystems Technology at HKU, envisages the latest initiative to result in a game-changer for the industry still predominantly reliant on the traditional mode of being labour intensive and yet impacted by intelligent automation technology.

Robotics experts including Professor Kazuhiro Kosuge, Professor Yasuhisa Hirata and Professor Satoshi Tadokoro from the Tohoku University are among the key investigators, together with top-notch researchers such as Professor Wenping Wang, Chair Professor of Computer Science at HKU, and Professor Tien himself.

The Centre aims at utilizing today’s artificial intelligence and robotics technology to re-engineer the garment industry, with an ultimate goal to increase production capacity, quality and work safety, and create new, high-level job opportunities for the decades to come. 


Building Hong Kong as a Technology Hub


The Centre aims to diversify the technology talent pool in Hong Kong and support the development of a local technology base on top of the existing industry pillars such as logistics, finance and tourism.


The Centre will benefit from the HKSAR Government’s InnoHK initiative as well as additional funding sources including the Research Talent Hub (RTH) administered by the Innovation and Technology Commission. The Centre aims to support the development of Hong Kong into a technology base, on top of the existing industry pillars such as logistics, finance and tourism, that will make impacts on the local economy.

“Our Centre will provide a paradigm shift to break the model of low labour cost, and tackle the technical challenges of introducing robotics and smartness into the current industry at all various levels,” says Professor Tien, who exudes confidence about the Centre’s future contributions. “We hope to take this opportunity to develop a technology base in Hong Kong and to create a critical mass in terms of technology here like Silicon Valley.” He added.

In the post COVID-19 pandemic world, where human behaviours and lifestyles are expected to undergo dramatic changes, Professor Tien maintains there is much room for growth and development in the garment production industry. “Eventually it’s human nature to want to look a little different. Even if you are wearing casual clothes, you may want a particular colour or polka dots on them. To meet such demand, Amazon and Taobao are facing challenges in customisation, for example, a shirt with a particular button or colour in the production line – this is hard for an industry which has so far relied on mass production. We have to be able to produce small volume at low cost and high speed.”


Advanced garment production facility at the Centre’s R&D laboratory 

Involvement of top Japanese experts

Robotics will be a crucial part of the future automation system to advance the garment production industry. Tohoku University is ranked among the top two leaders in robotics research in Japan, and particularly well-known for the practical applications of its research outcomes. “The real-life impact of our research is at the forefront of universities in Japan,” says Professor Kazuhiro Kosuge, Deputy Managing Director of the Centre and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, Medal with Purple Ribbon awarded by the Japanese Government in 2018 for his outstanding contributions to the society through his research in robotics.

To address the issues of vast waste caused by mass production and rising market demand for customisation, Professor Kosuge agrees with the need to revolutionise the industry. “We need a completely new automation system that can custom make shirts one by one, i.e., tailor made garments. That is the final goal of this project, which is truly transformative.”

He is highly positive about the outcome of collaboration with HKU, which he says enjoys a good reputation in basic science: “In our discussion with Professor Tien, we found that by combining the strengths of both universities, the research in basic science at HKU and application-oriented research at Tohoku University, we could create something different, especially with the use of AI (artificial intelligence).”

One outcome of the joint efforts by both universities is likely to be very smart robots that are able to work safely and interactively with human workers, as well as an advanced production process that ranges from sewing to the handling of various types of garment parts all the way down the production line. That explains the need for involvement of diverse talents in the future research. An intelligent system is needed also because of the goal to create a user-friendly work process, ensuring that even people without knowledge of robots know how to operate them.

With vast experience in developing robot arms to handle objects, Professor Yasuhisa Hirata is drawn to the challenge of finding the best option ahead. “Handling garment is very difficult. We have a team of several researchers specialised in developing robot hands. It is a very challenging problem, to connect a piece of garment with a machine, and there are so many types of garments from T-shirts, jackets to shirts. By using AI technology, we have to propose new strategy for handling the garment,” he says. Fortunately, he is no stranger to complex tasks. For more than 15 years he has researched on control of multiple mobile robots in coordination, human-robot cooperation system, assistive robots, haptics, industrial robots, and etc.

Another robotics expert, Professor Satoshi Tadokoro, is equally positive about the new Centre. “I think our collaboration will provide practical solutions to the garment industry with three potential contributions, one in raising the quality of products, for example producing tailor-made garments; improving productivity and efficiency, which is a typical contribution of robotics, and through robots, improving the working environment and safety of factories,” says the Director of Tough Cyberphysical AI Research Center at Tohoku University. He has been the President of International Rescue System Institute since 2002, and his research team has won wide recognition for their development of rescue robots deployed by the Japanese government for missions in the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant reactor buildings in 2011.

Vital Local Support

Robotics aside, machine learning will be another key area of focus to facilitate advanced production. “We not only need to understand robotic technology, but also need to find out about the interaction between human operators and machines, to make the process more intelligent and efficient,” says Professor Wenping Wang.

He is prepared to conduct virtual trials of taking measurements and other specifications of customers online. “Either in the near future or in the long run, we may have to make sure about catering to the orders of online shoppers.”

On applying robotic movements in complicated tasks in garment manufacturing, Dr Jia Pan, a HKU researcher in robotics, adds: “What we would like to do is to enable robots to learn from human demonstration on how to finish specific tasks, and how to finish steps one by one. We have to reconstruct the detailed procedures.”

Undoubtedly there remains a deep legacy of garment manufacturing here though long-time local manufacturers have already moved production bases elsewhere. “They still have their headquarters here in Hong Kong,” says Professor Tien. “We have lots of smart people, great universities, good human and educational capital, and good finance to help support these initiatives. All the elements are here.”

The Centre will also leverage the support of local domain experts. “The industry is aware of the need for transformation,” Professor Tien says. “We will be working with agencies and the industry to make sure what we do is relevant.”

“Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area will benefit from the future technology. By building a bridge between Hong Kong and Japan, Japanese companies will have access to a technology base where they can collaborate with us. Hong Kong also offers a point of entry into the rest of China.” he adds.


The University of Hong Kong signed an agreement with Tohoku University in 2019 for academic exchange and research of transformative AI and robotics technologies. The establishment of the Centre will definitely strengthen the ties by bringing together top researchers from both universities for cutting-edge research and application development.