I have spent almost 10 years making the case for 3D technology in the apparel industry. When we look at other industries like automotive, industrial design, and architecture, we see that 3D has been a vital part of their workflow for many years now. It may be that we are spoiled in our industry. If we want to see a new dress or shirt, we can cut and sew one. An automotive company cannot make a new car every time they want to change a body line. Simply put, the product development teams in these other industries were forced to trust the 3D prototype. We, in the apparel industry, are now accepting that we need to do the same.

When 3D companies began their messaging campaigns to brands and retailers about 10 years ago, they were mainly targeting the product development, pattern design, and technical design teams. The message was clear that pattern makers and technical designers would now have a new tool to check patterns and validate fit prior to moving forward in production. They were also messaging that the 3D prototype could be used to collaborate internally. This would lower the number of samples in the prototype and development stages as well as speed up the process and save sample cost. Totally logical and something that lines up with how other industries I mentioned earlier used 3D.

But when that collaboration brought design teams into the process, the messaging started to change. Simply put, 10 years ago, 3D was not very real looking. The way I have heard it described most often is “cartoony”.  Because of this lack of believability, designers were completely turned off, and held firm that they needed to see and touch the physical sample.

Designers also hated another thing about the original 3D solutions in the market: the fact that they were pattern reliant systems made them a non-starter for designers. Designers are creative people. They want to be able to imagine and create things outside the box. Being forced to work in the patternmakers world would be putting them a box. You see, a pattern has geometry and numerical values that designers feel hinder their creativity; designers deal in feel and form, technical designers deal in fit and function. So, again, designers wanted no part of 3D. They held on tightly to those Adobe Illustrator licenses and stuck to their guns when it came to sketching exclusively in 2D.

Although these early 3D solution companies had opened the doors, created the interest in 3D, and were the winners both financially and in the number of customers, the tide then started changing. Driven by a desire to bring designers on-board, the industry started to demand a solution that could produce more realistic 3D images and was friendlier to non-technical teams. To achieve a true digital collaboration workflow, design had to be included in the 3D workflow for it to achieve its full potential.

About 5 or 6 years ago, the technology started to get better. A lot better.  There were now more accurate ways of measuring fabric properties, simulation speeds got faster, and rendering capabilities made the digital prototype look more real. And this new focus on “pretty pictures” rather than on fit and pattern accuracy also brought new 3D-only solutions into the marketplace who were more than ready to compete by offering exactly what design teams wanted – even if it came at the expense of patternmakers’ desires for technical accuracy.

When I look back at the state of 3D adoption over the past 6 years, many things became clear:

  1. Most companies who were early adopters of 3D – what I call the pattern reliant solutions – today own at least 2 or 3 solutions to complete their 3D workflows. This tells me that none of those solutions, individually, are providing 100% of what these companies need.
  2. Many companies have opted for 3D design solutions that are independent or less dependent on pattern data. This workflow is a fragmented one where you have a 2D solution and 3D solution that do not speak directly to each other. This means data conversion is a must. Data conversions are not perfect. Some information gets distorted, or lost completely. Pattern clean-up and even complete pattern re-dos are common. So, ask yourself the question: “Is a workflow using the same 2D and 3D solution and maintaining clean and consistent data, a faster and more production reliable process?” The obvious answer is yes.
  3. Circling back to point #1, even with 2 or 3 solutions, designers are not totally content. What is actually happening is that design teams are opting for 3D solutions that are easier to use than the pattern reliant solutions. However, what they really want is their comfortable Adobe Illustrator environment where you push a button and a 3D image is created. And no solution can do that… yet.
  4. The design-driven 3D solutions can create a quick-look, allowing for easy changes to be made, and produce a pretty nice image. However, I would not rely on the pattern geometry produced in these types of solutions to start production. A true pattern design solution would still need to come into play. In essence, the process would involve going back to the beginning to put that 3D style into production – just like they would have done with a 2D sketch, but with an arguably unnecessary extra step. Double the work, in my opinion.
  5. Some of the issues that have been expressed by companies using a 3D design solution have been “what you see is not necessarily what you get”. The “pretty picture” these companies show to clients, buyers, or even host on their website is not exactly what is produced in the physical world. The product does not look the same and because of the lack of pattern validity, does not fit as expected.

As a former manufacturer myself, I have always believed that brands are built by consistent fit, consistent quality, and great design. Ask yourself why you buy certain jeans or dresses from a brand. The answer is usually, “it always fits”. And great fit starts with great patterns.

Rather than looking at 3D as a “silver bullet” for all of your workflow bottlenecks, look at it instead as a new tool to improve the process. In the same way manual pattern making was replaced by digital systems for efficiency, 3D is a new efficiency tool we have in the arsenal. Proper adoption of 3D – with guaranteed accuracy to the underlying 2D pattern – can make you more efficient, save time, save money and, with fewer samples and waste, be more sustainable.

What’s next then, for 3D? After ten years of seeing the evolution of both the technology and the implementation, I see the use of two 3D solutions in the workflow as the best model.

If I were tasked with implementing 3D in a brand environment, I would start by implementing a pattern reliant 3D solution in my pattern or technical design area. This would give these teams a new tool to validate fit and patterns, which will lead to less wasted samples and faster time to market. “3D for fit” is what I call this area. Beyond fit and pattern validation, these teams will also be able to scale and place artwork, logos, and graphic prints accurately. Again, when they are comfortable with fit and any art placement, there is a pattern ready to go into production immediately and with absolute confidence of accuracy.

For my design team, I would then choose an easy and agile 3D design solution that is not connected to a pattern. The teams involved with this solution would be designers, merchandisers, and product developers. The goal here would be to have something better than a flat Illustrator sketch to share in the design process. Designers can then iterate style changes in minutes and share with merchandisers and development teams. I may also consider creating a separate team to use a 3rd party rendering solution to create photorealistic images for use online – in ecommerce listings – or in a 3D store setup. Although most of the 3D solutions out there have good rendering capability, nothing will make a better “pretty picture” than a dedicated rendering solution.

Once the style is adopted, the next steps would depend on the workflow of the company. If there is an in-house pattern department, they get the style, develop the pattern, and start fitting it on a 3D avatar, body scan, or imported body form. Once fit is approved in 3D, it is sent to production. If there is no in-house pattern department, then a tech pack is usually sent to overseas factories and they make the first pattern. Now the technical design team receives the pattern and, using the 3D avatars, checks fit, provides corrections or comments if needed, and decides on the final approval. We are already seeing factories communicating with US brands and retailers with both a pattern and 3D prototype. This is the correct approach, but for brands and retailers just getting started with 3D, it’s a conversation for a later date.

We will see some new developments in the 3D space this year – especially as the COVID-19 crisis has kick-started many companies’ digital transformation strategies. Some 2D solutions that were a bit late to the 3D “game” have had the benefit of learning what works and what doesn’t for 3D adoption. These solutions will develop based on data of what companies really need from their 3D solutions. The well-known 3D solutions, on the other hand, have, in my opinion, been trying to outdo one another for years by, in many cases, adding flashy new features that make a good LinkedIn post, but offer questionable value in a real workflow.

The best practice is clearly to have one seamless data stream throughout the 2D and 3D process. This is why I encourage companies who have not adopted 3D yet to choose a company that is a solution partner, rather than a one-trick pony. You want a forward-thinking partner who will be able to offer a range of solutions in this increasingly competitive retail environment.

Remember, 3D is a new part of the workflow, and it’s ok to have made patchwork investments in using it to solve different problems. To realize its true value, though, you will benefit from an approach to 3D that will help you utilize fabric more efficiently, manage your production orders, automate your manufacturing floor, and connect it all in a seamlessly-integrated product lifecycle management system.  And if you look for that, you can find it.

About the sponsor: Gerber Technology delivers industry-leading software and automation solutions that help apparel and industrial customers improve their manufacturing and design processes and more effectively manage and connect the supply chain, from product development and production to retail and the end customer. Gerber serves 78,000 customers in 134 countries, including more than 100 Fortune 500 companies in apparel and accessories, home and leisure, transportation, packaging and sign and graphics.

Based in Connecticut in the USA, Gerber Technology is owned by AIP, a New York based, global private equity firm specializing in the technology sector and has more than $3.0 billion assets under management. The company develops and manufactures its products from various locations in the United States and Canada and has additional manufacturing capabilities in China. Visit www.gerbertechnology.com and www.gerbersoftware.com for more information.