Time for change

The coronavirus has hit every industry hard – and fashion is no exception. While we read a lot about how brands – and in particular luxury brands – are going to be ok, one hears little to nothing about the effects on the supply chain, and in particular on suppliers. By that, I mean the mills and tanneries in China that deliver the materials that are turned into luxury products by artisans in Europe.

There is no question that the apparel supply chain has been negatively impacted by this crisis, but we also see an opportunity for companies to rethink their way of doing business – not only to insulate themselves against further crises like this, but also to build a more efficient, cost effective and sustainable way of doing business.

New material season

This time of year – right after Chinese New Year – is the when new material collections are being introduced. Many material shows are taking place around the globe, bringing together brands and suppliers. Often both brands fly to visit their suppliers directly, and vice versa. This is how it is done today, and how is has been done for a long time.

No plan B

When the travel ban was established, most suppliers were not prepared for this to happen.

Because of traditional face to face human interaction all of a sudden not being possible, both suppliers and brands were caught in a deadlock – not knowing how to proceed and carry on business as usual. Certainly, suppliers could try and send physical material samples to the brands they are interacting with on a regular basis.  It may not be ideal, and it certainly would not be a quick process, but it would technically work.  But what about attracting new clients? Again, sending physical materials samples may be an option, but the timescales involved will be long.

Yet again, all of this requires preparation which nobody had undertaken.  And all of this happened during the Chinese New Year break, which delayed people going back to work.

Touch and feel

The question is why do suppliers and brands rely on physical samples of materials in the first place? Materials are all about touch and feel, no doubt about it. And this will not go away. But how many materials does a person have to touch and feel? Nobody touches or needs to touch all the materials a supplier provides. And certainly different colors of a material don’t feel any different. How often does a material essentially stay the same from a previous season, yet only the color changes? Also, in order to really touch and feel a material you will need to have a physical sample that is bigger than a 1”x2” square, meaning that traditional swatch books aren’t up to the task.

Digital to the rescue

When asking all these questions, one quickly ends up with a the conclusion that there must be a better, more efficient, more sustainable way of exploring materials – and one that could do a lot to mitigate the impact of the current public health crisis on the fashion industry. The answer is simple: digital materials. Yet what seems like such simple answer brings up another question: How far can I trust a digital material? Is this a new, unproven idea?

“Digital materials” have been around forever

Traditionally, “digital material” has had different meanings depending on the end user, and as such comes in various definitions, and possibly a combination of these definitions.

A spreadsheet

This is the most basic and fundamental form of a “digital material”: text and numbers define the material by the supplier’s given details. A visual representation is often time optional. This spreadsheet then gets entered into a PLM system. Many brands and PLM OEM will argue that they have or provide a “digital material library”, yet in essence it is just that: a glorified spreadsheet.

A data set

Similar to the spreadsheet, a dataset containing material properties is great for simulation purposes for example. It will, depending on the simulation engine and its settings, accurately simulate the behavior of the material in its given shape.

A shader

Render solution providers are talking about digital materials mostly in the form of shaders. While a shader is a digital representation of a material, it is only with regards to the looks to make it “look real” in a given image, whatever the purpose of the image may be.

A photo

A photo can be a good start, yet it lacks communication of scale and context. And it is just that – a visual reference.

The digital material as a digital twin to the physical material

It becomes evident from the previous paragraph that the definition of a digital material has to go beyond what has been in existence for several decades.  We believe that the definition of a digital material needs to adhere to a new standard – one that we call “digital twin”, which is a term borrowed from “industry 4.0”.  The “digital twin” of a material goes far beyond a data entry in a spreadsheet. It contains the following, exhaustive material characteristics:

  • Visual – this is how the material looks, in both 2D and 3D, and in true scale
  • Physical – this is how a material “behaves”
  • Meta-data – this is the actual supplier information with all the traditional spreadsheet data such as pricing, composition, availability, minimum order quantity, as well as sustainability scores and more.
  • Custom data – any additional data a user would want to store, any type, any format

So a true, digital material fit for use in 2020 is not a “file” in traditional sense. It is a digital asset, a source of truth that contains four layers of information which can then be compiled and utilized according to the end user’s need, for any 2D and 3D application.

The digital material, or the digital twin of a physical material, the way we are defining it, is a material that is tied to a supplier, and can be sourced just like any physical material.

Material digitization done right

In order for the physical material to turn into a digital twin, the digitization process has to be done right. Given the hardware and software solutions that are currently available this is neither cheap nor easy. It is therefore of the utmost importance that services are provided by experts who are equipped with the proper hardware, software, and knowledge to help suppliers in their digitization process. Leaving the task up to the supplier at this point in tech-history will result in frustration and failure between for both suppliers and brands.

Digital materials for the digital development process

Again, it is important to stress that we are not advocating that the digital material library replaces touch and feel. This being said, having a digital twin of the physical materials will allow suppliers to stay engaged and connected with their customers at any given time regardless of whether it is currently possible to travel to their premises or not.

Furthermore it will allow brands to work with the digital materials as part of their digital workflow, assuming that this is already is in existence. Brands can then develop complete digital samples, perform design reviews, make design decisions and perform focus groups with clients without the dependency on a physical sample. Of course a physical sample with the actual materials will be required at some point. Yet many decisions can be made without having to rely on physical materials and samples.

All throughout this process the brand can be in touch with the supplier, asking for new materials, new colors, provide feedback and more – without a single visit to a trade show or to the supplier’s premises. While this does mimic the traditional process, an all digital workflow breaks down the barriers of lead times, travel, shipment, and communication.  And in the current international situation, where travel and shipment are being further locked down with each passing day, that digital workflow offers a clear opportunity to carry on doing business in the face of a completely unique challenge.

How to get started

Many suppliers are concerned about two things: complexity and cost of material digitization. In particular, many suppliers look at potentially thousands if not tens of thousands of materials that need to be digitized. But brands are not concerned about access to all of these materials. Suppliers who need to get ahead of the Coronavirus outbreak – and also build the type of new, sustainable business model we spoke about – should start with the new seasonal collections, and focus on digitizing these new materials. Materials that are being reused on a seasonal basis can follow later. The advice is to start small, and grow from there, keeping costs low but still delivering a new way for brands – luxury and otherwise – to achieve business continuity.

Don’t wait – the time to go digital is now

The digitization process is fast, and suppliers can have their first digital collection online within days. With no real end in sight on when the travel ban will be lifted, there is no reason to wait. Your clients will be grateful.