It’s no exaggeration to say that digital design and development has become one of the fashion industry’s top priorities in the last twelve months – if not number one. From conversations The Interline has had with a range of different brands, companies that started 2020 creating perhaps a tenth of their new styles digitally ended the same year doing a quarter or more of their throughput that way. And companies that began last year with no digital product creation strategy or technology established have either rapidly implemented those strategies, or brought forward plans that had previously been left to simmer in a “someday” or “nice to have” folder.

The reasons for this acceleration range from the straightforward to the complicated, and from the pressing (and hopefully passing) to the potentially permanent.

Right now the rationale behind designing with one of the range of current 3D solutions, simulating fit in 3D, making decisions based on digital materials, approving 3D samples, and using 3D assets and digital twine to populate online storefronts and immersive AR experiences is obvious: there’s often no real alternative during COVID.

Today, design teams are working remotely, disconnected from technical developers, so any tool that can shorten the interpersonal distance between them, and remove a layer of interpretation from their collaboration, is desirable.

Physical fit sessions are still either inconvenient or, during the current spikes of infections and restrictions, downright unworkable. So dressing an appropriately-proportioned digital avatar of an ideal fit model (which should be one based on actual measurements and body composition data), and using torsion mapping, drape, and other simulations of material characteristics to predict how a new style will fit her is a way to keep moving.

By the same logic, material fairs are not likely to return in 2021 or even 2022, making the need for precise digital replicas of new fabrics stronger than ever. And if the physical swatch book was behind the times pre-pandemic, it’s a relic today.

Similarly, where creating 3D samples prior to the final physical sample was a matter of speed, sustainability, and efficiency pre-pandemic, it’s a necessity today. Supply chains and shipping remain disrupted, but customer demand is consistent in its scale if not necessarily its shape, so new styles need to keep coming.

And as browsing and shopping shift increasingly online, either temporarily or permanently, and physical photoshoots remain off-limits, the digital asset might be the only asset you can actually get in front of a customer.

Right now it’s difficult for anyone to say how long these pressure points will last, or to predict which of them will become permanent. But what we can do is categorise each of them individually as simple. Not in the sense that they will be easy problems to solve, but because they demonstrate clear cause and effect: an obvious issue has arisen out of the pandemic, and one or more digital technologies offers a way to either address it or mitigate its impact.

Where things get complicated, though, is the point at which we shove all these cause and effect relationships into a single bucket and label it “digital design and development,” or everyone’s favourite shorthand, “digital transformation”. Because while a growing number of companies are doing these things in isolation, very few of them are doing them all. And this is conspiring to create a situation where product design and development, which sits at the heart of any industry with a physical output, is disconnected at some level from what comes before and after. Which, depending on your business model, could become a big problem depending on how much pandemic-fuelled change ends up being permanent.

And the likelihood is that a lot of what’s changed upstream and downstream is not going to change back. Analysis conducted by McKinsey last autumn suggested that the digitisation of brand to consumer interaction had jumped forward three years in 2020 alone – and even further than that in Asia. From the opposite angle, research from just two days ago suggests that – across industries – two out of every three manufacturers are adopting digital technology faster than they expected, as a way of improving efficiency and minimising risk.

This does not necessarily mean that supply chains are being digitised en masse. There is still a lot to do in order to connect overseas manufacturing to design, and for every technologically advanced manufacturing coordinator or cutting-edge factory, there are thousands of factories that still trade in traditional craftsmanship, or manual labour at scale. And the maturity of technology adoption in the supply chain also still varies by product type, with knitwear being well-automated, while assembly, sewing, and finishing of wovens is manual-heavy.

But at the same time, a lot of innovation is currently being focused upstream, and while it’s going to take time to transform longstanding manufacturing models, new models are already coming in to supplement (or eventually replace) them. From digital fabric printing to entirely on-demand, in-country microfactories and production facilities, the process of making products is digitising in a way that’s not immediately visible if we concentrate on overseas factories alone.

Which means that, as we look towards a future characterised by lower volume orders, shorter lead times, and complex product mixes, if there’s a bottleneck where incomplete digitisation has the potential to holds things back… it’s going to be that disconnect between design, development, and manufacturing.

Does this mean that piecemeal digitisation of design and development is a bad idea? Definitely not. Digital product creation is not a zero-sum game, where a gain at one stage is offset by a loss somewhere else. Every quantifiable step towards an all-digital workflow is an improvement, and evidence to substantiate the benefits of virtual sampling, virtual fitting, and virtual photography is everywhere.

And for some business models, where end-to-end digitisation is simply a step too far (either now, or in the future), it may make sense to park digital design and development at a predefined point, rather than trying to extend it enterprise-wide.

“In the wake of the pandemic, we have seen a huge number of our users that have looked to reinvent their workflow with digital imaging and move faster towards the visual simulation of their product. We have also seen that many have adopted different stances on how far to take the digital transformation. Some go all the way with it and others are not looking to dedicate the time, or the design talent, to what might be a huge undertaking when the product is rolled into pattern making, grading and so on. Depending on your product and your buyer, your need to have an identical visual of what you’re selling will be different.”

That’s the perspective of Steve Greenberg, President of Pointcarre North America, who I spoke to shortly before writing this article. His take is not a unique one – in fact it’s one that many brands will share, since research conducted late last year (more to come on that next week) revealed that many brands and retailers have encountered significant cultural barriers between their initial digital design and development initiatives and their vision for longer term transformation.

In the near term, as the cause-and-effect use cases begin to slide into more lasting change, some of the existing segmentation of 3D and digital product creation initiatives will be overcome simply as a result of more usable software that’s also capable of delivering better quality results. Which is a development that Greenberg also sees:

“In the end, 3D and 2D technology has come so far along that you can have a hi-res image easily used for presentation boards, product catalogues, advertising, packaging, and websites. Your presentations can be virtually indistinguishable from actual product photographs.”

But at the same time, for business models where there is (or should be) no logical cut-off point past which digitisation should stop, 2021 is not going to let us ignore the wider demand for digital design and development – especially with consumer-facing digitisation proceeding so rapidly. And the pressures of the next few years of downstream and upstream transformation will start to weight heavily on that midpoint of product creation and sale.

Because as strong as designers’ and technical developers’ appetite is for better tools, I suspect we will soon reach the point where the primary forces driving digital design and development won’t be coming from within.