3D Virtual Sampling: Evolution or Revolution?

Nick Wei and Amy Yeung FY delve into an exploration of 3D virtual sampling. Nick has over 25 years experience in CAD/CAM and PLM; Amy has a strong product management background, with a Bachelor of Science in Textile and Fashion.

In the apparel industry, we’ve been hearing stories of successful virtual sampling rollout; the topic has been gaining hype, with more and more companies starting to explore the solution. It is a disruptive solution that allows factories to sell their product directly to end users, allows retailers to significantly shorten development times, and allows start ups to develop a new model for their businesses.

Speaking in general terms, there are 3 purposes for which virtual sampling is being used:

  • For a retailer or brand to be able to visualise a style in the early stage, to place orders adopting the style
  • For a factory or trading company to provide design services for brands to sell their product, and virtual sample is part of their value-added service to their customers
  • For a brand wanting to put their virtual sample in their e-commerce platform in the early stage of their development to test the consumer market, or even get orders from end consumers.

Sampling is a burden in your development process

Let’s take a look at the sample process:

Type of SampleSample PurposeNo. Of Samples To Be Made
Proto SampleWith the tech pack instruction, it is a process that develops a new style so that the buyer is able to visualise the product at an early stage – but the material and trim (such as the button use, zipper use) may not be the correct one. This is due to the fact that the correct material cannot meet the lead time.1 to 2
1st and 2nd SampleSome of the materials have arrived, then the sample maker develops a new sample to ask for approval, which is revised by the buyer, and sent another sample for approval.4 to 6
Proto SampleA new style may have a different colourway. This is a process to develop the style in full colour range for the buyer to review and comment upon.4 to 6
Fit SampleWith the end customer’s size specification, the sample room needs to develop full-size fit range samples and fit into their fitting mannequin for review. There will be comment and modification for fitting.7 to 9
Pre-production SampleThis is the final sample made before production begins. That final sample will be used in the production line as the standard product.3 to 4

In the above table you can see the number of samples needed for each style and, although the cost of those samples varies for different types of garments, you would need to calculate the following:

  • Cost of make (your sample maker’s time)
  • Cost of material (you have to develop a full material set)
  • Cost of delivery (logistic company flight charge)
  • Cost of wrong sampling and remake

Some companies have reported that 20% of their costs can be attributed to sampling. The purpose of virtual sampling is to:

  • Reduce sample time
  • Reduce sample cost
  • Increase the number of design variations so that you can sell more

Do you want to be a part of this digital transformation?

Virtual sampling is part of the current digital transformation in the apparel industry. So, is it necessary for your company to adopt this trend? Put bluntly, if you don’t transform, you will be left behind.

There are few things a brand / retailer needs to consider before you embark on this virtual sampling journey:

  1. What will you gain? (Or, rather, what will you lose if you don’t?). It has to be measurable.
  2. Are your products 3D CAD compliant?
  3. Are your business partners all up to virtual sampling?
  4. Have you developed the necessary skillset for virtual sampling development?
  5. Have you clarified your objectives of using 3D?
  6. Which 3D CAD solution to use?

(1) What will you gain?

Before you begin, you need to run an ROI (Return on Investment) analysis for your virtual sampling project opportunity. Tangible calculations could be:

  • Sample saving costs
  • Lead time reduction costs that impact your order
  • Sampling mistake coverage costs – You have to redo and resend to customers
  • Potential business gain – Make more design variation for your customers and sell more

Intangible calculations could be:

  • Company image gain – Ability to show your customers you have the latest technology, and are always incurring new opportunities
  • Internal moral gain – Internal staff seeing that the company is ready for a change which is motivating, especially for the millennials

(2) Are your products 3D CAD compliant?

Not all garment types lend themselves well to 3D CAD. You need to know your product portfolio to check if virtual sampling software is ready for it, as some of your items may not be quite ready for virtual sampling:

  • Lingerie – Lingerie is a technical product; it involves complicated padding, wiring and elastic structure. Some 3D CAD software has the capability to do such simulation, but you have to check if such simulation is accurate, by always comparing it with a real sample.
  • Sweaters – In order to make up a realistic sweater, the first thing is to make up a virtual knitted panel by virtual yarn, then you need to simulate the panel based on that virtual yarn. Some 3D CAD solutions have these capabilities, but others simply use graphical image to simulate the sweater knit texture effect.
  • Denim – Various washes or fabric ‘torn’ texture effects are done by trial and error, physically, and there are a lot of new inventions of different kinds of effect. The rendering of those special effects by 3D CAD solutions can only be done by graphical image manipulation rather than actual simulation.

Most 3D CAD solutions can still do the job of simulation for visualisation, but you may need to manage your expectations.

(3) Are your business partners all up to virtual sampling?

3D CAD/Virtual sampling is a communication tool. It is a platform for communication that you can use to exchange comments and ideas with your business partners.

If you are a brand, you need to motivate your suppliers to get on board and use the same tool. You ought to develop a common objective to reduce lead time and reduce sampling with your supplier(s). If you are a manufacturer and would like to develop a virtual sampling communication channel with your buyer to accept your design, you need to make sure they accept using virtual sampling for sample comments.

You need to include virtual sampling as part of your workflow with your business partner(s).

(4) Have you developed the necessary skillset for virtual sampling development?

Virtual sampling is not something that materialises just by purchasing a 3D CAD system and asking your pattern CAD operator to start making virtual samples for you. You need to employ people with a full range of software skills like the ability to make hardware (buttons, graphics) and people you’re the software skills to make prints and logos to ‘partner’ with your 3D CAD technical designer.

What we can learn from those businesses – like Adidas or Nike – who have successfully implemented 3D is that they have implemented a process flow in the sampling, design and buying stage – with not only internal staff but also external partners.

Working in 3D requires skills to support the development of virtual sampling (and you need to make sure they are on board )such as:

  • 3D CAD simulation skills – Developing the virtual sample from a tech pack and pattern
  • Pattern making skills – Developing the garment engineering pattern
  • Hardware development skills – Developing hardware items such as zippers, buttons, and badges to attach to the virtual sample
  • Graphical software skills – Developing 2D prints, embroidery design to place onto the 3D garment

(5) Have you clarified your objectives of using 3D?

There are different stages and purposes of use in the virtual sampling process. You need to be clear what you want to use it for. The below diagram illustrates 3 common usages.

Virtual Sampling for Design Visualisation in the buying adoption process – in a retail environment:

In a design environment, 3D CAD can reduce time wastage between concept design (where you develop a sketch, and a tech pack) and the look of the apparel. The buyer needs to see how it looks and a virtual sample can reduce tremendous amounts of time.

The process of sampling is long – from proto, first, colour, fit, and then finally to pre-production. There is a lot of guesswork between the designer and the sample maker that can incur incorrect samples, wasted time and effort (and, ultimately, cost).

Virtual sampling can present the ‘look’ of the design in an early stage, skipping the proto, first and colour sample stages. Some companies are able to develop only one real sample before production – that’s a 50% time saving and 70% cost saving in some cases.

Virtual Sampling for reduction in time and error in a production process – in a production environment:

Moreover, when the 3D virtual sample is confirmed, the 3D developer can simply ‘strip’ the pattern and send to the factory; then, the factory just inputs some pre-production information in the pattern, such as seam allowance, and the pattern is all ready for production.

In an e-commerce environment, even more savings can be realised:

High quality virtual sampling can also be used in e-commerce, meaning you can get your sales order right after you develop your concept and way before you make any samples. In that case, your virtual sample has to be of high quality, and very appealing so the end customer can make the decision to buy your product.

In order to produce such high quality rendering, you need to put more effort in the making. To make a product highly realistic, some companies even add animation of the garment worn by a model or put the virtual sample on a hanger.

Additional effort needs to be made on making the fabric look more realistic; special fabric scanning solutions for generating such higher resolution materials can be used. The system automatically creates those key texture maps including colour map, normal map, specular map and alpha map (depending on what type of material) after the specific design scanner. Then, it can be applied back into 3D software. This enhances the material look because the illusion effect of these texture maps creates a highly realistic effect.

Special tools, such as fabric quality testing machines, are needed to develop fabric physical quality like tension, shearing and drape. For rendering or animation of the product, extra effort needs to be applied by using external rendering like 3D Max or Mayer.

(6) Which 3D CAD solution to use?

We aren’t here to tell you which vendor to use, as there is a great deal of information already out there. But we are here to tell you that each vendor is different, and has differing strengths and functionalities. And, you need to know what product you are developing as well as knowing which stage of virtual sampling you need in order to find the most suitable 3D CAD software for your operation.

The basic features that a 3D CAD system should, in our opinion, have are demonstrated in the graph below.

Nowadays, 3D CAD companies are develop their offerings at an aggressive rate, and you see new features launch every month. This is all due to the demand of their customers. Latest developments include:

  • Virtual showroom and communication platform – Allows buyers and seller(s) to communicate in a virtual room, adding comments such as modification instructions
  • High Quality Animation – This is based on the kind of industries that use different type of posts: basketball player animation, golfing, cycling and all the way to the virtual catwalk
  • BOM development with tech pack – 3D files that can develop tech packs, and build BOMs (Bills of Materials) and costing
  • 3D animated fashion show
  • Virtual Reality

These developments reflect the increasing rate of adoption, yet 3D virtual sampling is still considered to be at the ‘early majority’ stage of Geoffrey Moore’s chasm.