Alumnus Kevin Martin’s (MechEngr’16) robotics and apparel company unspun has built a machine that 3D-weaves yarn into a seamless pair of jeans tailored to fit individual buyers. The machine uses topographical weaving to produce the pants in just ten minutes.
Martin hopes the technology will help reduce global carbon emissions by making the design, manufacturing and consumption of apparel intentional.
“The big north star that we kept coming back to is our climate,” Martin said. “Climate change is probably going to be the most pressing issue of our lifetime. Apparel is one of the dirtiest industries in the world because clothing that is never sold ends up in landfills or gets burned. We felt like there was a big opportunity to drive change.”
His company’s mission is to implement sustainable practices to ensure each piece of fabric that goes into making a pair of jeans is not wasted – which means each pair is made-to-order.
Ordering a pair of jeans from unspun starts with a 3D body scan. Customers can use their iPhone to scan themselves. The scan captures 30,000 data points for the robotic weaving machine to create the perfect fit.
The 3-D weaving machine is the technology that was originally developed in Senior Design. Martin, who graduated from the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2016, and his unspun co-founders sponsored a 2017 capstone project to build their first prototype.
“I don’t know that unspun would have actually existed without the Senior Design team,” Martin said. “We needed a prototype and they crushed it for us.”
After that capstone project, Martin advanced the prototype with help from a National Science Foundation grant and venture capital investment. Unspun is now on version three of the machine, which is what earned the TIME Best Invention 2021 accolade.
“The greatest feeling this year was to unveil the machine for the first time after not being able to talk about the hardware for four or five years,” Martin said. “To say to the world that we have developed this new method of apparel manufacturing called 3D weaving and it works.”
This is the second time unspun has made TIME’s Best Inventions list. The company was also given the honor in 2019 for the software that designs their custom denim jeans.
Martin, who grew up in Colorado Springs, said his interest in robotics started in high school. He built remote control airplanes and created his own version of a drone by attaching cameras to them. He then started a company building upon that drone technology.
At CU Boulder, Martin pivoted the startup company to cable cameras, allowing the system to move around on wires and be safer for indoor filming.
“We came up with this whole plan to sneak into the Idea Forge to test it on the rafters in the evening so hopefully nobody would see us,” Martin said. “I remember sitting on the rafters when Professor Daria Kotys-Schwartz walked by and all I could think about was how much trouble I was going to be in. Instead, she said our robot looked really cool and asked how she could help. She was so supportive.”
Martin’s advice to current mechanical engineering students is to take advantage of that encouraging atmosphere. There are many resources for aspiring entrepreneurs and engineers to plug into.
“Go find those instructors and professors at the university that are doing incredible things,” Martin said. “Share your excitement with them and get their perspective. You do not need to have all ten next steps of your life figured out, but they can help you figure out the next one or two.”
Customers can order a pair of jeans on the unspun website or using the iPhone app. You will need the iPhone app for the body scan. Unspun jeans cost around $200, but Martin said CU affiliates can get 20% off with the code SKOBUFFS.