Change is a constant in fashion and retail, but the coronavirus pandemic is proving to be the accelerant for an entirely new pace of transformation.

Since the year began, every major retailer has been, in waves, completely dependent on digital sales. Some of the world’s biggest brands have seen triple-digit growth in online revenue, and while that happened out of necessity, it’s unlikely that the clock will wind back.  Shoppers’ new habits will probably persist as brick and mortar stores reopen, and statistics suggest that at least thirty brands with a high street presence might never open their doors again. That could prove to be a conservative estimate if the latest downturn figures prove accurate.

The digital route to consumers is, for the foreseeable future, going to be the primary one. And as a consequence, brands and retailers are suddenly confronted with  focusing the majority of their time, effort, and technology investment in making their digital channels as compelling as possible.  But it’s a big ask.

Entering the picture is our company Embodee, which for nearly a decade has created dynamically rendered 3D images of apparel for online customization. Two years before the pandemic disrupted everything, Embodee began planning to create a 3D platform that integrates every aspect of digital product creation – from conception to vibrant, interactive online experiences.  This work has given us a unique perspective on the significant gap that exists between the desire of brands and retailers to go digital, and the tools that are available to help them do so.  And this is why we created our Orchids™ platform – launching in the second half of 2020 – as a way to bridge the market’s digital ambitions and people’s ability to actually put them into action.

Since the pandemic hit, there have been many predictions of when and how economies will begin moving again. But very little attention has been paid to how brands can really accomplish a herculean feat: adopting new technology, overhauling long-standing processes, enduring incredible disruption, and doing everything else it takes to transform a physical workflow to target a digital storefront.

Moving forward, the most pressing need will be to create, source, and sell new styles to a customer who has hunkered down in the digital channel, or to risk becoming a statistic in this year’s projected retail losses of $2.1 trillion. But that’s easier said than done when your samples are languishing in ports somewhere on the other side of the world, your suppliers are only tentatively reopening with limited capacity, and your speed to market falls around the industry average of 44 weeks.

The goal, then, is clear: to be as efficient as before, if not more so, meaning that as a brand or retailer your mind is probably racing with questions around how you get from here to there. And your mind is almost certainly going straight to 3D, because 3D is everywhere and, as we’ve established, virtual samples offer a ready source of value. A service like the Orchids platform removes the reliance on physical samples – allowing users to visually brainstorm online, annotate suggested changes, and make other comments as products evolve through the creative process, from design, review, refinement, and final approval.

But what might not be as obvious is that, beyond virtual sampling, other gaps still remain in 3D’s ability to deliver efficiencies.  Because there has historically been no single platform that unifies all the different places that 3D assets can be created, shared, displayed, and experienced. And as a result, the ability for the full spectrum of stakeholders – designers, 3D artists, product managers, marketing and sales team members, and more – to work with and populate a 3D-centric platform has been limited.

For example everyone has seen a digital visualization of a product before, and they are becoming far more prominent in web stores today since Shopify added native support for 3D objects and augmented reality.  These are static renders of varying quality that shoppers can rotate, potentially zoom, and generally use to get an idea of how a product might look and feel in the real world.  And they work: early adopters like Rebecca Minkoff report that consumers are 44% more likely to add products to their cart when they could visualize them in 3D, and 27% more likely to then go on and buy them.

But you have probably wondered just how much work is required under the hood – and from how many different disciplines – to put a 3D product on an eCommerce listing when all your sampling, prototyping, and production is still done manually.  Did the brand render the visualization in-house from a 3D CAD file their artists had built?  Did the marketplace or storefront capture it with some kind of scanner?  Is the object the customer interacts with being drawn in real-time, on their laptop or smartphone, or stitched together from stills taken from an offline render?

All of these are fair questions.  And the answers to any of them could be yes, depending on how far the brand in question is along its own 3D visualization journey, and how the digitization workload is being shared between brand, supplier, and retailer.  Crucial also is the need for each of those actors to have access to a single, shared repository of 3D assets that are tied to product status and stored together with key data such as standardized color references, digital material swatches, factory codes, and other vital information.  And in most cases today this backbone does not exist, which is precisely the problem our Orchids platform is designed to solve.

If you have seen a 3D visualization of a single, static product, you’re likely to have also seen a configurator that allows users to do more than just spin a model of the product.  They can swap out components like uppers, tongues, soles and laces in the case of sneakers, or lining, leather, and furniture for a handbag.  And there may even be the option to add personalized embellishments or monograms. (Embodee provides this capability to its customers now.)

If you had questions before, they’re going to be compounded here.  If the 3D render was static, how can the components be changed?  If it was real-time, what sort of logic and libraries are behind it?  Did the brand have to build every different permutation of parts?  And if so, do they have a configurator of their own, for internal use?

This is a lot of uncertainty.  And it all brings us right to the biggest barrier that brands and retailers face when they want to map out a manageable route from physical to digital.  How can you, a brand owner, replicate these digital experiences when you’re not sure the resources, skills, and technologies exist in-house?  And just how much cost and commitment is required to switch from established ways of working to new, 3D-centric ones that allow anyone involved in the product creation process to create custom variations and publish their output in an attractive format – ready for wider audiences both up and downstream?

“With the increasing adoption of 3D authoring solutions comes the question of how a wider audience can leverage products created in these solutions and for purposes other than just rapid prototyping,” says Embodee CEO André Wolper. “We saw the need to create an accessible, self-provisioned platform where anyone with a stake in the product design process, not just technical staff, can contribute to the creation of 3D products, create variants on the fly, and publish their work in high-impact 3D.”

That multi-stakeholder engagement can begin with a 3D CAD model being imported from popular 3D design tools such as CLO, Browzwear, Foundry, or Optitex, and continues into product refinement.  From there, teams can build assortments, conduct approvals and reviews, and even test new products via consumer panels before a physical sample exists.  And once those decisions are made, and product data is entered into third-party solutions like PLM, those inline and custom products can make their way into selling channels in their best possible shape.

So what should be the first step for you, as a brand or retailer looking to make the transition to digital working in a way that engages everyone in the product life cycle? The simplest route is to consider digitization as a service.   Your team would continue to source physical prototypes and samples, then send these – or a finished product – to a digitization bureau to be scanned and converted into 3D assets for display on Shopify or any other eCommerce platform.

This is a viable model in normal circumstances, and once supply chains stabilize again, it could continue to offer a solution for brands that need digital versions of their latest lines quickly.

For more wholesale transformation, though, the answer is to adopt intuitive, accessible technology at the brand level, allowing your in-house teams to design new styles online, in 3D, and to use those same foundations to create custom products for both upstream purposes – in manufacturing – and downstream, in eCommerce sites.

This is the model that major brands have bet their futures on, with companies like Tommy Hilfiger targeting its spring 2022 collection as the point beyond which all its samples will be managed digitally.  And in light of current conditions, businesses of all shapes and sizes could turn to 3D as a way to accelerate product development and reduce costs.  And this is the market we created the Orchids platform to serve: making the benefits of digital design available to the widest possible audience, with appropriate permissions, and giving stakeholders at various levels a way to continue refinement via a library of colors, textures, materials, fonts, and graphics.

Beyond the ideals, though, the reality is likely to be the two approaches that the Orchids platform blends, offering brands and retailers a practical way to make 3D work for them and  allowing them to make decisions digitally and collaboratively.

Retail has undergone a once-in-a-century upheaval, and the future is far from guaranteed.  But as a brand or retailer, you can take confidence from the idea that each of the major obstacles to offering 3D visualizations and experiences through eCommerce, and using the same tools to change the way you work with suppliers, can be overcome.  The skills gap; the technology gap; and the 3D content gap.  You can bridge them all by finding the right partner and the right platform.


About the sponsor:  Embodee will soon launch a new kind of 3D web platform built around the idea of easy collaboration and sharing among stakeholders. Using the Orchids platform, teams can visually brainstorm, annotate suggested changes, and make other comments — anywhere and anytime — as products evolve through the creative process, from design, review, refinement, and final approval.

The Orchids platform breaches the department silos inherent to large companies and also invites in key external people such as vendors, creating a borderless place that fosters transparent communication and the free flow of ideas.

A select group of companies is test-driving and critiquing the latest iteration of the platform so Embodee can ensure it meets the needs of potential customers. The Orchids platform will be officially released in the second half of 2020.

To learn about the Orchids platform, visit embodee.com.

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