As global e-commerce sales have increased by 19% as a result of COVID-19, engaging consumers digitally is more important than ever – and 3D assets are going to be at the heart of every engagement strategy. With physical photoshoots now impractical, 3D assets  have the ability to stand in, as well as offer shoppers new ways to interact with garments, footwear, and accessories that go way beyond what’s possible with flat photography.

As a result, brands and retailers are suddenly facing demands to speed up the digital product creation (DPC) process, Needing to visualize product samples and produce consistent high-quality 3D images faster and faster. This is why brands and retailers of all shapes and sizes are seeking solutions to manage the task of 3D asset creation and rendering at scale.  Investments with a clear return in mind, which will enable organisations to reduce time to market, and leverage 3D to create, make and sell their products in a retail industry that seems likely to be digital-first for the foreseeable future. 

But beyond buying licenses for 3D design and development tools, how can brands ensure consistency and quality across the board throughout their digital product creations? How can teams that are relatively new to 3D scale their digital product creation workflows in a repeatable and predictable way? The film and media industry could offer a roadmap.

The Promise of 3D Vs. the Reality of 3D

The promise of 3D has been that it will introduce business agility throughout consumer goods & apparel, reducing time to market, waste in sampling, and enabling product validation by engaging consumers with imagery of products before they exist. The reality of 3D, however, involves a good deal of training, of learning, and the workflows themselves are quite complex. Most companies are ending up with inconsistent quality and results, as there is a significant amount of data to manage, and therefore a significant amount of data to standardize across internal teams. Another challenge involved in this new way of digital product creation is that brands are still designing and selling as they previously have in the past, meaning that they have to manage two methods at once, and the volume and scaling challenges are difficult to manage all at the same time.

To put it bluntly: 3D asset creation at scale is not easy.

Learning Where to Build and Where to Buy

For the past 10 years, the apparel industry has been in the innovator phase. Only around 1% of brands have transformed their businesses to be fully 3D, which means that the industry is still at the beginning of the transformation, with ample room for growth, and plenty of opportunity to improve efficiency – with the right template to follow. 

The process of scaling 3D involves developing workflows and building a pipeline around digital product creation (more on what a pipeline is in just a moment). Done right, 3D can create intellectual property and revolutionize a business. Done wrong, 3D can become an expensive cost center that is siloed from a large part of your business. 

With any technology, there are constant lessons to be learned on how to iterate and improve the quality and process over time. Building a 3D Pipeline includes:

  • Training staff
  • Defining data standards
  • Defining naming conventions
  • Investing in software licenses and IT infrastructure 

All up, the process of building a 3D pipeline can take between 18-24 months and will require constant improvement along the way. Additionally, as evidenced by numerous companies that have built 3D pipelines, the merchandising, ecommerce, and sales teams are often left out of the DPC process. So although 3D takes work and will likely be non-negotiable soon, the truth is that brands don’t need to build everything themselves. Instead, brands need to understand the principles of where to build and where to buy solutions. 

What is a 3D Pipeline for Digital Product Creation? 

The term “pipeline” comes from the film and media industry, and was born out of the need for large animation studios to manage hundreds and hundreds of 3D creators, all working on different 3D specialties, and all working towards the same goal – the goal of a finished film. To create a 3D film requires the involvement of numerous departments, all specializing in different areas utilizing different techniques. 

Stages of a 3D Pipeline: 

Asset Creation:

  • Modeling – to create the 3D shape and model. 
  • Rigging – to create movement points, knee joints, elbows, points for movement on eye lids, lips, and so on. 
  • Surfacing & Texturing – everything from snakeskin to tweed, giving 3D objects realistic textural qualities. 

For the apparel industry, in digital product creation terms, this stage would be categorized as materials and scanning, colors, patterns, and simulating the drape.

Animation:

  • Animation – to give life and movement to 3D pieces. 

In DPC – animation isn’t often used, however we are seeing more animation with regards to virtual runways and we will likely see more of this in future. 

Final Stages:

  • Lighting – to create realistic lighting qualities for sunlight, shadows, indoor studio lighting etc. 
  • Camera Angles – to provide variations and options in camera views (front view, back view, side view etc).
  • Rendering – to combine the digital creations from each department, and produce a 3D image that is realistic in shape, texture, movement, lighting, and camera angle.

Each of these stages and departments are comprised of hundreds of people doing specialized and minute work, each of these stages and departments make up a 3D pipeline, and each of these stages and departments are essential with regards to scaling 3D.

To control and predict the final 3D product, a 3D pipeline is an essential component of film companies’ workflows, as they need to ensure that the right work is being created at the right time, and that all of the imagery generated is consistent. Pipelines also enable management to track time schedules and budgets and most importantly keep technical standards aligned during every step of the process. 

And these are principles that the fashion industry can borrow.

3D Digital Product Creation (DPC)

3D DPC in apparel is similar to the media industry, however a major difference is that teams are not working together on small parts of a single massive project (like a film). Creators typically work on small projects on their own, all of which have unique requirements, meaning that they need a lot more independence. Apparel tools like CLO & Vsticher, which are very powerful tools, put the entire pipeline into the hands of the user. The result is that users get to work independently, however it ends up being a lot more challenging to uphold workflow & business standards. 

The final stages of camera angles, lighting, and rendering, often get left underserviced, and it is specifically these final stages that are the most important component of ensuring scalability for the business, enabling other business teams such as sales and e-commerce to begin using the imagery. This is the part of the pipeline where one would adhere to a collection and a brands product / ecomm style guide, ensuring consistent image quality is the same every time (even if it comes from various users and designers). As soon as you add more than one designer/creator, the image consistency and quality become difficult to predict.

Automation + Integration = Scalability

It’s important to remember that fashion is still early in its DPC journey.  And also: no other industry has scaled the use of 3D the way that the media industry has, so it’s not as though retail is lagging behind the curve.  And the success of 3D at scale in the media industry was achieved by combining custom built automation systems, with tightly integrated software, and teamwork throughout the pipeline process. 

So there’s no reason for brands and retailers’ to feel as though they are not doing 3D right.  But at the same time,  ways to automate and integrate 3D DPC is essential for the success and scalability of 3D creation.

Most apparel companies that are currently using 3D are manually rendering and uploading these hundreds of images, which overall ends up being a more time consuming process than it would have taken to build the initial garment in the first place. A designer may not need to render each colorway of a garment to envision what a variation might look like as designers are quite skilled at envisioning what things will look like in their mind, therefore creating pictures of products before they physically exist becomes about enabling the rest of the business, so that the non-designers such as buyers and merchandisers who can’t always envision details in the same way a designer can, can still make decisions to determine the value and how a collection will look.

Sales teams can’t sell without images, and consumers can’t determine if they like the product without images. Once a brand can generate 3D images of a product, they are enabled to make powerful decisions about upcoming collections and their business strategy overall, however the ability to scale 3D into hundreds of images is difficult to achieve for hundreds of products. 

DPC at Scale for Apparel Brands

Current 3D apparel workflows are predominantly manual, and therefore incredibly difficult to scale. Thus, digital product creation’s biggest barrier to scale is the ability to reliably and predictably generate product images and to remove the manual labour component. To solve these challenges, businesses need automation tools to ensure that 3D imagery is consistent no matter who created it or which 3D application it was created in. Brands will see further productivity boosts with the ability to integrate the output of 3D (the images) with their existing software and workflow tools – PLM systems, slack, Microsoft Teams etc – resulting in the ability to send images to sales and ecomm teams for validation as soon as possible. 

Ultimately, automation within the final stages of the 3D pipeline combined with integration to existing software tools will enable apparel brands to scale digital product creations for their business, further advancing the fashion and apparel industry into a new phase of the digital transformation.

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