In April and May, The Interline and our carefully-chosen panel of sponsors made the case that broad adoption of 3D design and visualisation tools in fashion was overdue. The upstream business case had been viable for several years, the technology could already produce results that were, in some applications, indistinguishable from reality, and downstream consumers were clamouring for better ways of evaluating products before buying them.

By adopting 3D at an enterprise level, brands stand a good chance of tapping into benefits that have been proven elsewhere: reducing their carbon footprint, cutting costs, reclaiming creative time, and offering unique eCommerce experiences through virtual try-ons and product configurators.

The key to realising all of those benefits, as essentially all our contributors argued over the last two months, is having an entirely digital workflow – one that runs from the point of inspiration, to planning and range building, through to bill of materials and supplier collaboration.

But there’s a vital piece of that workflow that can’t be covered by 3D, 2D, or any other combination of design and development tools: the act of production.

Even the best-organised digital production creation processes still end at the air gap between the technical specification and the finished result – where the digital comes screeching to a halt, and the analogue takes over. The factory of yesterday was a black hole into which manufacturing instructions were sent, and from which products emerged.

To be clear: the hardware that manages printing, plotting, cutting, sewing and finishing has been digital for decades, since the introduction of CNC machinery. And many of these machines have been connected to the internet for maintenance and telemetry purposes for years. But two crucial elements have been missing: the ability for the brand commissioning an order to monitor its progress from one of those production stages to another in a centralised solution, and the ability to control that process remotely.

Why? Because visibility into and control over how their products are made has rapidly become a key objective for non-verticalised brands who do not directly own their factories, mills, and suppliers.

Historically, the reasons for wanting these things were obvious. Very little of what is sold in consumption markets in the Western hemisphere is made here. Although China’s status as the “factory of the world” has wavered slightly in last few years, the vast majority of the things we buy and wear in the US, UK, and Europe is made on another continent. As a result, manufacturing had operated for a long time almost completely out of sight – a structure that simply could not survive the ethical and environmental scrutiny now being applied by the open market and by regulators worldwide.

Today, the need for visibility and control has assumed a new dimension. The global pandemic has not only dramatically accelerated the need to understand and control overseas manufacturing, but it has exposed the fault lines that lie beneath that model when it comes to delivering the level of on-demand production that consumers are being conditioned to expect in the very near future.

As a consequence, the future of production is likely to take two forms. One will remain overseas, revitalised by robotics, automation, and industrial connectivity. The other will spring up in-country, using technologies like digital printing, 3D printing, and connecting cutting and sewing machines to enable sampling and short-run production to take place on brands’ doorsteps.

These two perspectives reflect the different angles that The Interline will take, from today, on the need for a new model of manufacturing – as well as on the practicalities of actually bringing that model to life. As with our 3D coverage, expect exclusive articles, interviews, and guest content – all oriented around the open question of what it’s really going to take to deliver a factory fit for the future, whether it’s at home or abroad.