If you’d asked me at the start of the pandemic which industry event would be the hardest to recreate virtually, I’d have said ideation – Gerber Technology’s annual conference.  In my time covering and speaking at these events (I was a moderator at ideation 2019, in New York City, and past events have taken me across the USA) I have never once been able to take everything in. 

Designed to showcase the full scope of Gerber’s different business segments and its blend of software, hardware, and services, every ideation has been split into different tracks, with each track further subdivided into sessions, all running simultaneously, and most encouraging participation and hands-on engagement with the software.  And that’s before you take account of main-stage keynotes that mix announcements from Gerber with presentations from high-profile industry figures, panel discussions, hardware demonstrations and more.

There’s a lot packed into every ideation.  And a lot of what has made past events distinct has relied on physical presence, interaction, and engagement.  This was especially true of ideation 2019, which pulled double duty as a conference and an unveiling of Gerber’s new Chelsea Innovation Center in New York City, where the vendor’s microfactory concept was showcased. (WhichPLM’s report on ideation 2019 goes into the microfactory in much more detail, and is available to read online.)  So when the pandemic broke last March, and events were quickly cancelled or reshaped to become online experiences, I remember thinking that ideation might just have to skip a year.  But it didn’t, and ideation 2020 took place early last November as an all-digital event.

So how did Gerber go about translating all this to a digital format? And did ideation 2020 suffer at all from the change to virtual, or from the webinar fatigue that had set in for many people by the time the event started, in early November?  In both cases, I needn’t have worried.

First, and most prominently, ideation 2020 embraced its digital nature by throwing the doors open as wide as possible.  In previous years these events have been restricted to Gerber customers and prospects, but this time around the multi-day agenda was accessible to anyone who wanted to register.  And the results spoke for themselves: across its two days of mainstream events and its half-day Executive Forum, ideation 2020 drew in excess of 2,000 people from more than 90 countries.  Those delegates were entertained and informed by more than 40 speakers, presenters and panel members – of which I was asked to be one, moderating a session on the virtual main stage, and chairing the discussion portion of the Executive Forum.

Some of this impressive attendance could be put down to the increased appetite for digitisation in general (it’s hardly an issue any brand or retailer can reasonably ignore today) but much of it, I suspect, came down to two other aspects: the diversity of the show the Gerber team put on, and the way the vendor has tackled the pandemic, both internally and for its customers. The latter of these was one of the major themes of ideation 2020, and I want to front-load this report with it for that reason, and also because it can serve as a source of inspiration at a time when fashion and retail businesses continue to stare down a very uncertain future.  Yes, 2021 is likely to be better than 2020, despite a very rough start, but how soon and how far the return to “normal” will be is impossible to guess, and the darkest days of 2020 are still very fresh in people’s minds.

And those dark days were when Gerber’s long-running message of end-to-end digitisation – from design to production – rang out the loudest.  Between January and today Gerber’s PPE task force has helped more than 1,700 companies respond to the immediate crisis, secure business continuity, and retain employees by shifting their capacity to PPE production at scale. (Gerber’s footprint in manufacturing meant that the company saw COVID coming early, in China, although the bulk of these transitions were made after the pandemic hit the West, in March.)

Working closely with manufacturers and verticalized brands and retailers – many of whom participated in sessions at ideation 2020 and shared their experiences – Gerber helped to build PPE production that, at its peak, scaled to 150 million masks and 3.8 million non-surgical gowns per day.  And their participation in this endeavour was much more than a marketing initiative: the Gerber task force provided a free feasibility matrix that allowed customers, and even non-customers, to figure out what PPE they were able to make with the machinery they already had, and included advice on the use of different materials and manufacturing methods, such as heat sealing and ultrasonic welding.

Ideation 2020 included several examples of this extraordinary initiative being put into practice – and of how businesses have evolved as a result.  FPS Apparel, which is a New York based manufacturer that employed around 50 people pre-COVID, actually placed an order for a new cutter from Gerber to try and meet the NY Governor’s request for masks and gowns, and that company wound up donating thousands of masks and establishing a PPE business that now runs alongside their regular apparel production lines – a combination that has increased the company’s sales 200% over last year. As part of the Executive Forum discussion I led (which also included key representatives from the AFAA and NCTO), Burlington Medical shared their story of pivoting to PPE production to safeguard their business and save lives, after which they were able to return to their usual production.  Burlington Medical were also the first practical example I’ve come across of an integration between a vendor’s technology stack and the 3DLOOK body data platform, which is now being used for contactless measurements of Burlington’s uniform customers.  And the digitalisation discussion I moderated on ideation 2020’s virtual main stage included similar stories from Arizona Fashion Source and Bonneterie Chanteclair.

This initiative, combined with Gerber’s additional work as a matchmaker between production capacity and hospital demand, undoubtedly saved jobs and saved lives, but as became clear in numerous sessions throughout the digital event, it also established a path to prepare brands, retailers, and manufacturers for a future that’s likely to be dominated by disruption.  Being able to pivot to producing PPE on a short deadline is, aside from the global urgency of the situation, not fundamentally dissimilar to needing to pivot to producing a new product category, or shifting to cater to a new market.

Karsten Newbury, Gerber Technology’s Chief Strategy and Digital Officer, summed this up by saying that the task force’s objective had been to help companies “address PPE, but also leverage the same technologies for future automation”.

This summary also reflects a broader change in Gerber’s positioning.  As well as selling manufacturing hardware, design and development, and automation solutions, the company appears to have undergone a shift towards being transformation consultants.  This is a complex subject to discuss, since the word “consultancy,” when applied to a technology vendor, typically means a costly and time-consuming implementation, but in Gerber’s case a conscious decision has been made to place a greater emphasis on services like business conceptualisation, manufacturing strategy, and digital readiness assessment.

In fact, Gerber Technology’s CEO Mohit Uberoi went as far as to refer to this new strategy as being representative of “a new Gerber”.  In his introduction to the event, he also charted where this change had originated, saying that “we all have choices when adversity hits us – either we hunker down, or take our destiny into our own hands”.  This, at least from my point of view, was one of the keys to unlocking why ideation worked – against all the odds digitally.  It provided an honest, unvarnished, look at a company whose primary business is supporting other companies during a difficult, transitional time, talking about its own transition and what it means to offer reliability and service when your customers are facing incredible risk and are relying on your products to help insulate them against it.

That’s the kind of openness that has always characterised ideation for me, and because it remained intact, that allowed ideation 2020 to feel consistent with past events at the same time as being delivered through a very different format, and in a very different world. That format, then: although ideation 2020 drew a much larger and broader audience than past events, it still followed a similar flow, with different tracks and sessions dedicated to different interests, different solutions, and even the different industries that Gerber Technology covers.  (Furniture, automotive, and sign & graphics were present at ideation 2020 in addition to fashion.). Attendees could add the sessions they were interested in to their personal agendas pre-show, and then view them according to a live schedule.  And as per past events, sessions on the main stage were scheduled in their own time slots, after which the different tracks ran in parallel.

Sessions were broken down into a couple of different formats: briefings and unveilings, panel discussions, and live demonstrations. 

As a participant in two panel discussions, I can safely safe that I personally got a lot out of that format, and it appears as though delegates did as well.  The virtual format, combined with a tight schedule, did not allow much time for audience participation in main stage discussions.  But the executive forum, as a longer session with a more curated audience, had more room to breathe, and interaction between attendees was a routine occurrence.

The briefings and unveilings were where the Gerber Technology team, along with select guest speakers, had the opportunity to announce upgrades, refinements, and innovations, and to place them in the broader market context.  A lot of that context was provided by Karsten Newbury and Deborah Weinswig, CEO of Coresight Research, who spoke about the industry in general.  Separately and together, Newbury and Weinswig analysed fashion industry trends like the ongoing dominance of athleisure as a category, the desire for customisation and virtual fitting, and the need for retailers to offer contact-light, experiential retail that transcends traditional channels.  Also prominently mentioned was the need to “shake up sourcing,” and to replace outdated prediction models with machine-learning-powering demand forecasting.

Many of these trends are also analysed in a collaboration between Gerber Technology and The Interline, published in summer 2020, which looks at “the new reality” and how digitisation is critical for brands and retailer seeking to make a smooth transition to a world of continuous disruption.  But at the same time, the Gerber team and their guest speakers did a good job of capturing the essence of the response brands and retailers need to the constantly-shifting market conditions.  These were grouped into three key areas: digital product development, on-demand manufacturing, and transformations in mass production.

All three of these are catered for within the Gerber Technology portfolio.  Digital product development is the domain of the AccuMark family (covering 2D patternmaking and 3D simulation), while Gerber’s blend of production hardware and cut planning, nesting and other manufacturing solutions are already an apparel industry standard.

What has increasingly become clear this year, though, is that while on-demand production and mass production have very different goals – and will be targeted for very different reasons – the technologies that support them both have a lot in common.  Gerber’s microfactory is a prime example of this: a single location that consolidates a lot of the constituent parts of the sampling and short-run production chain into a system that can turn a personalised eCommerce order into a finished product in an hour, but also a proof of concept for the various digital solutions that are likely to reshape offshore mass production in the near future.

The biggest announcement of ideation 2020 embodied a similar theme.  The new Atria Digital Cutter, named after its status as the heart of the factory, is envisioned as being the first wave of Gerber’s new, hyper-connected, high-performance digital factory.  With the stated aim of developing what Gerber’s Lenny Morano called “the most intelligent, high-performing, integrated multi-ply cutter,” Gerber have created a machine that’s at once iterative and innovative.  It does the job better than the machines that predate it, but it also has the potential to usher in a new era of smart, connected manufacturing.

To people who don’t directly engage with production, this side of Gerber’s business can seem a little dull – especially compared to 3D simulation and cloud-native PLM – but frankly it’s anything but.  Atria might hearken back to Gerber’s founding principles, and its origins as a hardware business, but it’s also a symbol of the vendor’s commitment to forging a path forwards for the unity of hardware, software, and services that, I believe, represents the future – not just of Gerber’s business, but of the fashion and consumer products industries as a whole.

In terms of pure results, anyone involved in the design and development of new products should care about connected manufacturing solutions and IoT-enabled hardware.  Together, they can deliver improvements like remote maintenance and troubleshooting, which can solve 85% of issues remotely, translating into greater reliability and supply chain resiliency.  And Gerber also cited the example of a customer in Mexico who had been able to improve their manufacturing throughput by 30%, leading to a direct, measurable impact not only on their own profitability, but on the speed and quality they are able to offer to their brand customers.

There were, of course, other announcements packed into ideation 2020’s bustling agenda.  Seamless integrations across the full Accu-suite were highlighted (AccuMark, AccuNest, and AccuPlan), as well as changes to the licensing methods for both AccuMark and YuniquePLM, which now benefit from portable licenses tied to either email addresses or USB keys.  AccuMark 3D now also supports Alvanon avatars, comes complete with a zipper library from YKK, and supports digital materials through integrations with Swatchbook, Material Exchange, and Substance Source.  And at the same time as these improvements to design and development, the AccuMark team have also focused on what Gerber’s 3D lead Matt Bakhoum refers to as “taking visuals the last mile,” with a new in-house renderer that can produce high quality visuals for print and online media without sacrificing pattern accuracy.

YuniquePLM itself is now at version 8.9, which bundles numerous quality of life improvements across the board, as well as introducing the new YuniquePLM Fast Start, which is a light, rapid deployment of YuniquePLM aimed at businesses that have not used PLM before, but that stand to benefit from sample management, collaboration, and tracking of virtual and physical samples.

I don’t mean to gloss over the software innovations here, because they drew plenty of attention during the show.  Nor do I mean to overlook the usual corporate growth statistics. (Gerber Technology has invested around $60 million in R&D over the last three years, and acquired 400 new customers in the last 12 months, with around 30 od them being in fashion.) But the core theme of ideation 2020 was, to me, something different.  Rather than being a showcase for technologies, the virtual event came across as guide for brands, retailers, and manufacturers that, this year, have been given no choice other than to digitise their core processes, pivot to new business models, pursue automation, and think on their feet.

As we look back on what was an exceptional year – and not in a good way – and as the world wrestles with a new year that looks just as daunting, at least to begin with, it’s become clearer than ever that that sort of digitisation is going to be what drives the future of our industry.  As Karsten Newbury put it during the event, fashion retail is approaching a point of “tech convergence,” where hearing words and acronyms like AI, 3D, blockchain, and IoT together is no longer remarkable.  These are technologies that have seemed distant for years, but are now, suddenly, being packaged together as a solution for fashion’s need to insulate itself against risk, and to forge forward into a future that looks very different to the one I or anyone else attending ideation 2019 might have imagined.

So it’s not that ideation 2020 was short on announcements, improvements, and innovations.  It’s that in exceptional circumstances, those things can seem routine.  But by the same logic, the exceptional things stand out even more.  Things like mounting a live, multi-track event in the midst of a global pandemic and having it work.  Or demonstrating a commitment to helping other companies mount an effective response to world-changing disruption, and then to try and turn that into longer-term digital transformation.

And as much as I enjoyed visiting Gerber’s NYC innovation centre in 2019, and as much as I remember being impressed by its combination of cutting-edge technologies, reflecting on ideation 2020 now, in early 2021, it feels like the most recent event will have a more lasting legacy.