As a growing number of brands, retailers, and manufacturers either adopt 3D solutions for the first time, or evaluate how best to scale up their existing digital product creation strategies, a lot of weight is riding on the shoulders of the companies that develop these solutions.

From being a novel way to approach sampling, to their current status as critical technological infrastructure, 3D platforms have very quickly become essential investments for our readers.  But a lot still remains uncertain in both the wider world and in how small, segmented 3D projects can be successfully transformed into enterprise-wide digital transformation.

We spent some time with Amir Lehr, CEO of Optitex, to discuss this and to tackle head-on the question of what complete digital transformation looks like… and where it should start.

The Interline: Obviously the world has been through a lot in the last twelve months, but fashion and retail have been particularly hard-hit industries, and when things do hopefully stabilise as this year progresses, the industry is going to be trading in a very different reality than it was pre-pandemic.  What do you see as the biggest challenges that brands, retailers, and suppliers are going to face this year, and where should they be looking for solutions?

Amir Lehr: I don’t expect the world to ever return to the same shape it was pre-pandemic, and we see change happening everywhere.  In the last few months there has been a lot of business consolidation – most obviously in the ASOS acquisition of some of Arcadia Group’s assets, but it’s happening in other places as well.  In the near term that trend is likely to continue, which will mean reduced competitive pressure for the businesses that survived the worst of this year, and the opportunity to acquire brands and stock from competitors that didn’t.

We also predict much stronger integration of brick-and-mortar and eCommerce channels, as well as much more extensive use of digital design, development, and 3D modelling – whether that’s for fitting, B2B collaboration, or B2C engagement.  And now, with more eCommerce in the overall mix, customers could potentially visit the digital storefront on their smartphone twice a week – significantly more than a physical storefront – which will bring with it higher expectations to see new styles. 

While this obviously, and for justified reasons, puts pressure on designers to innovate, it doesn’t stop there, as digitisation must be carried all the way toward predictable fit and cost tightly executed production. That level of post COVID eCommerce weighting puts a whole new emphasis on digital workflow.

That also leads to my belief that, more generally, for all the pain COVID has caused, the pandemic been a potent catalyst for digital transformation.  Mental roadblocks that were holding organisations back before the pandemic have been broken down because those companies simply didn’t have any alternative other than to replace physical samples with 3D samples, or real models with digital avatars, for example.  And where those initiatives have been in place long enough to show results, those results are providing the credibility and the proof that digitisation is here for the long haul.  So we’re seeing brands, retailers, and suppliers that hadn’t already adopted digital product creation now jumping in and investing, and the ones that had are now extending those projects to additional departments, additional users, and into the supply chain.

Vitally, though, accelerating digital transformation must also mean connecting the dots – not simply charging ahead with isolated use cases.  Up until now we’ve seen very segmented workflows, where some sampling was done in 3D, some patternmaking was digital, but definitely not the majority.  So I believe the biggest challenge facing any fashion business right now is going to be connecting those different elements together – building an end-to-end digital product creation workflow that can handle the upcoming requirement for more complex product mixes and shorter production runs, without sacrificing producibility.

The Interline: That shift in the production paradigm is something we’ve written about recently, and it does seem as though there needs to be a concurrent shift in the way the industry thinks about 3D and digital design, development and production.  Because short runs with more variety is not a model that lends itself to bottlenecks at any stage.

Amir Lehr: It’s also going to be a complicated problem to solve, because it’s relatively simple to build a cohesive, end-to-end digital workflow within a company that’s vertically integrated, but a lot harder to do it in a value chain that has different entities creating, designing, communicating, sampling, and manufacturing from different sides of the world.

The industry is gradually addressing this problem already, but in my opinion there has been a missing piece: a 3D a platform that’s truly capable of connecting vendors, brands, and consumers to the same flow of assets and information.  As you know, the industry has a set of 3D standards today, but they’re not currently rich enough, or strong enough, to really do what needs to be done: to carry every nuance of creative design right through from technical development to the consumer-facing storefront, without risk of error or interpretation.  And that’s one of the major problems that technology will need to address.

The Interline: If we were to put ourselves in the shoes of a brand that has had 3D on its agenda for a while but hasn’t yet been able to put its ideas into practice, where would we be best served by starting?  Obviously we’re talking here about broadening the scope of 3D to encompass the entire value chain, but that’s a big leap from what, for many businesses, is going to be a standing start.

Amir Lehr: I think the best place to start would be with your blocks: the set of proven patterns that serve as the foundations for everything else, from style iterations to sizing and grading rules.  Those blocks capture the essence of a brand’s DNA, and with the pace of development that fashion today demands today, many new styles, new colourways, and new concepts start life as iterations or manipulations of those blocks for speed and convenience.

Optitex 2D-3D Integrated Pattern Design Software for fit-validated 3D virtual samples

I would encourage any brand evaluating where to begin with digital product creation to consider the best way to digitise those blocks, those avatars, and that sizing information to shore up and safeguard their brand DNA, and to allow them to continue to create at the speed the market dictates, with accuracy and without risk.  From that starting point, the use of 3D can go both upstream and downstream.  It can be deployed to create 3D digital imagery for use in discussions with potential buyers, or to show to consumers on social media or eCommerce platforms.  And its value can be extended to helping to really execute on those visions – to take concepts into production, and to collaborate and negotiate with potentially many different suppliers and still get a consistent end result.

The Interline: That raises a difficult question about supply chain collaboration and communication, because if every brand is dealing with multiple suppliers, then every supplier is likely dealing with multiple brands. Who is driving the adoption of 3D, and who’s dictating the way it should be handled? There seems to be a legacy perception that suppliers are behind the curve and it’s the brands who are encouraging the use of 3D, but given that most suppliers work with multiple brands – and possibly multiple different 3D environments – the reverse might just as easily be true.

Amir Lehr: Initially, I believe the pressure came mostly from brands who wanted to accelerate product lifecycles and become less dependent on physical sampling.  Because those pressures applied primarily to them, I think the motivation was higher for brands, and as a consequence it was easier for them to find the budget for that sort of digital transformation, since suppliers were working with tighter margins.

See your 2D CADs come to life in 3D within Adobe Illustrator!

I suspect this may no longer be true, and I believe the drive for digitisation might now be coming from both ends.  The rapid growth of eCommerce, and the way the pandemic has accelerated digitisation are both contributing to that same top-down pressure we saw previously.  But it’s being met with bottom-up pressure from vendors in India and throughout the Asia-Pacific region who are augmenting their in-house capabilities – not just to cater to overseas brand customers, but to prepare to address their own domestic markets.  The world has seen several instances of manufacturers evolving from doing contract work for international brands, to later becoming strong local and even global brands in their own right, and investing in technology can give suppliers an edge in both scenarios.

The Interline: Where do you see the burden of 3D asset creation falling in the near future and in the longer term? Are 3D design and 2D pattern to 3D simulation tools intuitive enough that the next generation of fashion professionals will do all this work in-house, or do bureau services and scanning companies have a long-term future? And how does that picture differ between, say, smaller enterprises and mass-market retailers?

Amir Lehr: A few years ago, a brand that had taken some steps towards digital transformation might have committed to executing perhaps 15% of their samples digitally, leaving the remaining 85% to be done physically. I believe that share has changed, and that it continues to change rapidly – to the extent that 30% might already be done digitally.  That, I believe, calls for a real strategy for brands to increase their own capabilities, because having those skillsets available in-house is really the only viable long-term solution.

Evaluate 3D virtual fit in different technical views

To help reach the goal of 30% digital, or 50% digital, businesses should absolutely use a bureau service where it makes sense, but the faster they build core 3D and digital product creation competencies of their own, the sooner they will be able to scale even further and across multiple product categories – without the added overhead of contracting work and essential skills out to a third party.  And the critical component of building in-house skills is going to be finding the right solutions to make the process of upskilling, learning, and creative experimentation as seamless as it can be.  That’s a major focus for Optitex, because we believe in making the power of 3D as universally accessible as possible.

The Interline: One of the major benefits of 3D workflows is their ability to power remote collaboration – for both in-house teams and suppliers.  But actually creating 3D assets is only a part of that picture when it comes to sharing technical specifications, managing approvals and sample iterations with full accountability.  What do you feel the future looks like in terms of 3D as a genuine, auditable collaboration tool? And what needs to happen, technologically speaking, for that vision to become reality?

Amir Lehr: 3D workflows present an opportunity to reduce or eliminate physical sampling and increase design creativity by enabling the consideration of many more design options previously expensive to create. Several things need to happen across the entire industry for this to materialize:

Standardization of digital asset format – whether it’s in the way of presenting digital fabrics, measuring their physical properties, presenting 3D models, or even fully describing a pattern – is key to reducing collaboration friction among parties and allow new value to emerge along the digital chain. Such standardization can allow for new ways to introduce new materials and experience them with minimal sample production; choose the best way to realistically present a garment in 3D, without having to build it from scratch; or even to enable a marketplace of microfactories that would compete over the production of orders.

PLMs are becoming centralized platforms that connect brands, suppliers, and manufacturers. They are making steps in becoming more 3D-ready, but still have gaps to fill in their capabilities to fully present a 3D model and capture and manage the technical properties around it necessary for accurate development and production. Here, by the way, the concept of a strong block holding all of these details and backing up the 3D model is key to achieve full visibility along the value chain. Only when really mustering all of the details can one drive the accountability needed along this complex value chain.

The Interline: One question that has dogged 3D for a long time is whether users need to choose between visual fidelity and producibility, or whether they can have both. Given the current level of interest in digital product creation, do you believe we’re moving towards a point of convergence, where one solution can do everything?

Amir Lehr: I think specialisation is going to be important.  It’s difficult to conceive of a future where large companies with complex, multi-national value chains commit to using just one tool. At the same time, though, no 3D vendor should have a “get out of jail free” card, and every solution should be capable of both simulating a style accurately and exporting it in a way that looks aesthetically pleasing.

But as the gaps between solutions narrow, the areas of differentiation between them are arguably going to matter more.  So, depending on your objectives as a brand or retailer, you might prefer a solution that leans more towards fast prototyping and consumer-oriented imagery, but with compromises to how far those prototypes can be taken into product development and production, or you might prefer a solution that emphasises predictable, producible end-results.

Collaborate on the cloud for live fit sessions with Optitex or Alvanon avatars

At Optitex, we are very focused on that second priority: making sure that our 3D simulations provide a reliable ramp from creative design to production, without unforeseen problems with patterns, costing, materials and so on.  That has always been our objective, and I’m pleased to say that our recent developments have been targeted at making that power accessible to more users than ever – even those who might have been intimidated by the learning curve and user experience of technical 3D solutions in the past.

The Interline: One of the thorniest questions facing the fashion technology sector at the moment is how much can be borrowed or translated from other industries?  If we take videogames, or architecture, or automotive design and advertising, there are a lot of digital-native best practices that seem like they should make logical sense to port over to fashion.  Obviously that’s not something any industry wants to do blindly, but do you believe that fashion should be looking over its own garden walls towards industries that might have gone further, faster with digital product creation?

Amir Lehr: Fashion and apparel have a unique set of requirements when it comes to 3D – not least because we need to think about soft bodies and material characteristics, which is not the case in designing a mobile phone or a computer.  There are simply things that are critical in our industry that are not critical in others.

But that does not prevent fashion from borrowing best practices from other industries where cross-pollination of processes and ideas is logical.  If we refer back to our discussion around blocks earlier, I think the closest equivalent is a chassis or platform in the automotive industry, where a company works for maybe three or four years on a new architecture, and then goes on to create multiple products based on that architecture for years to come.  I see that as a smart utilisation of technical assets, creative time, and core investment, and it’s also an example of how digitising foundational assets can make it quicker and easier to iterate and innovate – and to develop new products at different price points, for different audiences, without compromising brand DNA.

So overall I feel that fashion is just too unique of an industry for any other sector to serve as a template for technology adoption, but I do believe we can – and should – take inspiration from the way other industries have tackled similar digital transformation challenges by starting with the essentials, and then building more specific use cases on top of them.

The Interline: Finally, where do you see digital product creation for fashion going from here, and what are you specifically working on to address future industry developments?

Amir Lehr: Speed to market has been a pressure point for fashion for a while now, but the same forces that are driving rapid digitisation for brands and their suppliers are also affecting consumers; new trends travel the world in hours via social media, and shoppers expect instant, consistent engagement across channels.  That is only going to increase the importance of that long-time objective: to minimise the delay between the vision for a new style or a new product, and the time that product is available to buy.

3D has made great strides in shortening that timeline, but I believe it can go much further if we extend the value of the solutions to new audiences.  For Optitex, one of the most important initiatives in our pipeline is enabling designers who don’t necessarily have or need patternmaking skills to bring their ideas to life in 3D, in a way that remains predictable, accurate, and producible.  Rather than creating sketches and illustrations that then need to undergo extensive technical work and pattern development to enter production, our vision is for designers to be able to create in an environment that’s specifically tailored to delivering a producible output.

To round that out, we’re also investing heavily in making all of our cloud and collaboration tools as strong as possible, to support the new reality of remote working, and we’re adding further support to our solutions for categories like technical garments and personal protective wear.

Overall, our goal for the very near future is to provide brands, retailers, and suppliers with the digital tools they need to respond quickly to micro-trends through efficiency, collaboration, communication, and usable, accessible simulation.  And I believe that post-pandemic will be a golden opportunity for the industry to really forge ahead with digital transformation, providing it has that kind of technological support.