The problem

Spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, three main reasons have emerged for shifting supply chains to digital.

First and most obvious: production centers are closed, which means no physical sampling, putting the development of future collections at risk.  Brands are also realizing the extent of their exposure to supply chain risk, and re-evaluating their options for the future.

Second, fashion weeks the world over are being cancelled or going digital, bringing a major channel for the promotion of new collections to a total halt.

Third, consumer demand could be dropping and then staying low, increasing the need for accurate demand forecasting and agile production.

All of these are challenges that 3D has shown it can help solve.  Over the last decade, 3D virtual prototyping has emerged as a leading way of reducing product development cycle time and waste. In parallel, 3D virtualisation has made significant inroads into the e-commerce space, enabling products to be promoted and sold even before production has begun, and unlocking new direct-to-consumer opportunities when integrated with virtual and augmented reality.

But the workload involved in implementing 3D can seem like too hard a pill for a lot of brands to swallow.  So I wrote this article to shed some light on where 3D can add value to your operations, where the challenges might be implementing it, and some proven tips for successful 3D integration.

The solution

3D virtualization platforms are used for a wide range of applications.  Whereas 10 years ago the focus was on using 3D as a way of validating 2D patterns, today 3D photorealistic renders are used almost everywhere in the inspiration-to-presentation process – from Digital Product Development (DPD) to online sales and virtual showrooms.

The most commonly used platforms are 2D/3D integrated, which use built-in rendering engines. These systems can import and export 2D DXF or AAMA files, which means they can offer production oriented features and functionalities as well as 3D simulation capabilities.

There are then pure 3D simulation and rendering systems, which are more artistically-oriented.  Some have their roots in visual effects work for cinema, or video gaming, but in the hands of skilled artists they can generate very realistic fashion styles. Another advantage with these platforms is the timesaving factor, as they don’t rely on 2D patterns and don’t require the same degree of technical accuracy.

If the objective is a rapid inspiration-to-line presentation process, these 3D systems, coupled with powerful rendering engines and other artistic software providing even more realistic effects, are great solutions.  But it is important to bear in mind that fashion design and production environments do not commonly include 3D design skills.

To make the most of 3D digitalization, there are also four other factories to bear in mind beyond your choice of 3D platform:

  1. Fabric scans: the quality of renders you can produce will be largely affected by the input, which includes raw materials that need to be translated into digital fabrics. The most technically accurate option is to use professionally digitized fabrics, but in-house technology, outsourcing scanning services, and digital fabric libraries can also provide good results.
  2. Collaboration platforms: the days of stand-alone workstations are over. Each 3D generating station is part of a larger DPD picture, where inputs from various team members should be easily accessible at any time – online and interactively. Workload should also be balanced and allocated according to developing needs and team members’ evolving skillsets, which is why cloud-based solutions are a compelling option for larger teams that need to make the most of 3D together.
  3. Presentation: even the best 3D assets have limited value if you do not have the right platform to showcase them.  As a result, online Virtual Showrooms, smart screens and other cross-platform solution should be a part of any 3D project, as the final destination for the work.
  4. PLM integration: as 3D becomes an integral part of manufacturing and technical specifications, it will be absolutely critical to consider better integration with PLM, making sure that the 3D model and its associated technical specifications are accurate.

There are also implementation questions to do with legal, IT, service, training and maintenance costs, education, ramp-up period, employees’ retaining and ROI. All these are factors to be aware of, but outside the scope of this article.

The 3T’s

I previously worked as a senior executive for a leading 3D provider, selling solutions to fashion brands around the world.  During my time there, I learned that, although we were able to sell a lot of licenses on the promise of 3D, the actual number of companies who actually used it in the way we intended was very small.

Why? After some research, we uncovered three main reasons.

Team:

Very few designers, pattern makers, or even tech designers want to learn something completely new. The truth is they feel they are overworked already, and learning a new process – especially one that’s more difficult, in many ways, than their current one – will set them back and schedules will suffer. It’s also important to take into account that, when management decide to adopt a new 3D solution, this often means replacing the current 2D creation platform as well, to keep simulation and pattern in sync.  In these cases the operators will have not only to learn how to generate convincing 3D renders, but also train on new 2D software.

Technology:

Most 3D CAD systems rely on patterns – and the last thing a creative designer wants to deal with is a pattern. They like to use their design tools, visualize and bring their ideas to life, and when the result looks as intended, it’s then sent on to product development and production teams before going into manufacturing. 

To be clear, designers love the option of viewing a rendered 3D sample instead of a flat sketch, because it makes their ideas more immediately accessible, but the need to have pattern knowledge is a deterrent for creative and artistic professionals.  And for those creative designers who have adopted 3D, the most common complaint is that the solution is too hard to use, and that making a physical sample would have been quicker.

Trust:

Probably the highest hurdle to overcome. Many designers like to touch and feel the samples before approving.  Even if the 3D render looks realistic, they doubt that the physical end result will reflect the simulated reality.

Implementation Tips

Overcoming these common issues is not a matter of forcing 3D adoption.  Instead, it’s about carefully considering what you hope to get out of it before putting too much in.

Ask yourself what processes and challenges you want to target with 3D. This is a key issue. Will 3D be used primarily in digital product development? As a tool for presenting new styles and lines? As a way to populate eCommerce? Depending on your answer, you may find that high-fidelity 3D is overkill for your intended applications.

Identify the right solution.  There are two main options to consider: in-house and smart-sourcing. An in-house implementation is a more traditional software project, where variables such as support coverage and cost should be taken into account, as well as training programs, major annual upgrades commitment and on-going integration support. ROI is obviously an important parameter and besides the direct workstation cost and indirect implementation costs, there should be a good analysis process in place, taking into account idle time, or low activity level due to seasonality. In addition ramp-up time is a factor people tend to forget, it is suggested to consider anywhere between 6 to even 12 months before reaching optimal 3D results.

The second option is what we call smart-sourcing, or 3D as a Service (3DaaS).  Some 3D software suppliers also offer 3D creation services. These can be local service bureaus or massive, global operations employing teams 2D/3D experienced artists, who will turn your ideas and specifications into 3D assets of the right level of fidelity for your chosen applications. Some also provide online collaboration platforms and cross platform Virtual Showrooms.

The potential advantages of the second approach is clear: there will be no initial implementation cost, and no skills gap to overcome.  But not every smart-sourcing partner is created equal, so to increase your odds of a successful partnership, evaluate the following:

  • Capacity: what volumes can be handled in a given time frame?
  • Agility: how well can the 3DaaS provider adapt to changing demand levels?
  • Speed: it is expected that experienced teams, in combination with a robust workflow, will generate fast renders – otherwise the in-house alternative could be preferable.
  • Platform: some 3DaaS providers have developed proprietary interfaces and enable seamless integration with existing workflows, while others will simply package up and send over assets.
  • Full product range: can the supplier support your entire product range?  If you produce fast fashion, tailored garments, and knitwear, for example, can they create all with equal fidelity?
  • Prices: there will be a breakeven point between 3DaaS and in-house, and until this point the client can learn more about HOW to use 3D, which visualization system they prefer and what applications they better outsource due to lack of in-house skill-set.

As I mentioned, most 3D visualization systems come with an integrated 2D creation software. The time it is going to take to learn the new system should be taken into account, but no less important are issues like data-base conversion. Doing this will be vital, though, if your objectives for 3D include virtual fit, since pattern accuracy and fabric behavior require high levels of pattern mastery and 3D simulation skills.

Tied to this, it should be clear from the above that the profile of today’s CAD system operator has changed.  As well as traditional patternmaking and artistic skills, they will now be required to master a wide range of software packages and turn this knowledge into new ways of engaging with others across the supply chain.

To sum up, don’t hesitate to take 3D on a “test drive” using 3DaaS to create neutral testing ground, develop internal capabilities to support digitalization, and then appoint a “champion” to lead the change and start with a long term implementation process that might lead to an in-house implementation.

And although the initial barriers might seem high, remember that anything that can become digital, will become digital. The world demands it.  Fashion is no exception.

Good luck!


About the sponsor: virtuality.fashion has some of the most realistic 3D product images in the market (arguably the best). Our pipeline starts at the sketch stage making us a great source for content that is helpful in merchandising style-outs, but also high quality enough for consumer consumption.

virtuality.fashion is a powerful integrated online upstream tool, designed to engage creative users through the power of 3D visual collaboration technology, from first inspiration to product validation.We are a cloud based platform that unites in-house teams, global departments, and external partners. Together, you can inspire, design, communicate and develop visually, in a secure shared space, more effectively than before.

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