During the disruption of 2020, and now 2021, the focus of digitisation has been on design and development.  But with the initial rush to 3D over, is digital product creation running the risk of overlooking the people who actually create products? Or does 3D have the potential to bridge the longstanding brand-supplier divide?

When creative design and patternmaking teams suddenly had to vacate their offices and switch to remote working last year, a lot of attention was understandably paid to providing them with the tools they needed for continuity and collaboration from a distance.  And at the same time, as brands pivoted from one product category to another – formalwear to loungewear, jeans to PPE – the ability to rapidly visualise new prototypes and concepts in 3D became downright essential.

Adoption of 3D was already on the rise pre-pandemic, but the past twelve months have brought in-house digital product creation initiatives forward from the hazy 3-5 year horizon, sharpening them into sudden priorities for the vast majority of brand and retail businesses.

And the results of that acceleration are clear.  Greater uptake of 3D is but eliminating the gaps between sketch and sample, and having the capability to instantaneously bring an idea to life is now far more common.  Designers today can see their concepts faster, and they can experiment more freely without needing to commission samples.  Technical developers can simulate those designs in detail, identify potential problems with fit, and improve pattern engineering – all without touching a prototype. Merchandisers and managers can review assortments and line plans in greater fidelity than a 2D sketch could ever provide. And much more.

3D assets created and rendered in Style3D.

In a very tangible way, 3D has kept the creative lifeblood of fashion flowing during COVID. And the pandemic has also stress-tested the benefits that early adopters were seeing at scale, validating the strategic vision for digital design and development.

But at the same time, those benefits have not been distributed equally across the value chain. And many digital product creation strategies have paid relatively little attention to the people who actually create products: suppliers.

How a high-pressure year exposed the balance of power

COVID shone a spotlight on the one-sided nature of a lot of supply chain relationships.  In the first month of the pandemic alone, and in just Bangladesh, more than a thousand garment factories had orders originally placed by European retailers cancelled, with a total value of more than $1.5 billion US.  And for every retailer pledging to support its suppliers during the recovery phase today, there was a brand that opted not to compensate its supply chain partners for sunk material and labour cost when the pandemic began.

These were extreme examples of the disconnected nature of many brand-supplier relationships; even before COVID, brands relied heavily on their overseas sourcing and production partners to keep product flowing, but would also routinely heap pressure on them without paying attention to how their relationships could – and should – have been digitised.

3D Assets created and rendered in Style3D.

For a variety of reasons, encompassing everything from sustainability to bottom line profitability – this needs to change. And 3D could be the catalyst the industry needs to make that change – provided it’s approached smartly and sustainably, and supported by the right 3D ecosystem, rather than relying on a patchwork of different solutions.

3D: the chance for a new model of collaboration

Fashion in 2021 needs to react more rapidly than ever – not only because of the sudden micro and macro shifts brought about by COVID, but because of long-percolating changes to consumer behaviours that were having a marked impact on the relationships between brands and suppliers even before the pandemic.

In some segments, shoppers were demanding much more in the way of personalisation, variety, trend accuracy, and quality.  And competition meant that compromising on any of those metrics could mean losing customers.  These heightened expectations were being passed on to manufacturers, mills, and other supply chain partners at every tier, but without being accompanied by the sort of digitisation that would have helped those suppliers manage the increases to their own costs.

3D assets created and rendered in Style3D.

In other market segments, speed was everything, and low-cost, disposable fashion has fuelled a race to the bottom on raw material cost, labour cost, and product quality.  Combined, this led to a contract market defined by demand volatility and price competitiveness, which placed a big burden on suppliers to deliver to constantly-compressing deadlines without raising their quotes.

These forces have led to a situation where, today, a manufacturer, a material supplier, or a supplier of components and trims can only really compete in one of two ways: by increasing throughput and speed, or by investing in innovation to improve the value of their services.

In both of these cases, 3D can help.  For relationships defined by speed, 3D specifications and samples that can be iterated on and refined almost in real-time can improve unit cost for the customer and profitability for the supplier, as well as cutting development cycles for both.  And for relationships where innovation is paramount, a supplier can quickly demonstrate the quality and performance of a new finished product or technical material in a 3D simulation, rather than relying on a physical prototype.

Digital materials created and rendered in Style3D.
Digital materials created and rendered in Style3D.

Many suppliers have, in fact, already been working in 3D for some time for their own internal reasons – using it as a way to safeguard their competitive position, to stand out in a crowded contract marketplace, and to match the advances in efficiency, profitability, and sustainability that they have seen their brand customers making.  For example: by implementing Style3D from Linctex (a 3D ecosystem provider that specialises in empowering brands and suppliers in Asia, and is now looking to bring the benefits of its end-to-end solution to brands in Europe, the United States, and other markets where the potential of supplier connectivity is relatively untapped) garment manufacturer Kimhaie was able to make significant savings during its development phase, reducing labour costs by 30% and material costs by 60%, compounded across an annual production capacity of 5 million pieces.

These are not small savings, and they match – in some cases exceed – the scale of the return on investment that brands have been able to realise by adopting 3D for design and development purposes.  But outside of a cohesive 3D ecosystem like Style3D, both strands are still happening in isolation, in different, potentially incompatible solutions.  And the compounded value of bringing them together is being left on the table.

3D assets created in Style3D.

Most importantly, recent digital product creation research on which The Interline partnered revealed that brands’ and retailers’ investment priorities remain weighted towards in-house processes like 3D design, line planning, fit testing, and product development.  And this is not because brands do not care about their supply chain partners, but rather because too many barriers still stand in the way of connecting in-house 3D use cases for brands with the ways their suppliers have approached digitisation. 

From differences in usability and adoption rates to file interoperability and integrations, solution fragmentation poses a big problem.  Which underlines the requirement for a complete, design-to-downstream, 3D ecosystem – one that can extend the creative, commercial, and collaborative benefits of digital product creation to everyone in the value chain.  And one that, critically, that’s broad and adaptable enough to work for the various different ways that brands and retailers approach sourcing and production.

Different roads; same destination

Every supply chain is different in its scale and its composition, depending on the products, materials, and markets it targets, but broadly speaking there are two major types of brand-supplier relationships.

The first sees the brand wanting to retain full control of its creative processes, working with partners only on production, and making extensive use of 3D in-house.  But without a cohesive ecosystem that extends the value of that 3D strategy into the supply chain, these brands are currently finding themselves frustrated by quality issues, fit problems, and other challenges that arise from having a communication and interpretation barrier between themselves and their vendors.  They currently have no single system of collaboration, accountability, and iteration because what starts as a digital 3D workflow ends as an analogue 2D process.

The second sees brands wanting to co-create with their suppliers, and perhaps already using 3D assets for that purpose.  But even these businesses might currently find themselves struggling to collaborate with the full spectrum of supply chain partners, across different tiers (from finished product to materials), and they may be finding that the assets they create for one purpose are not portable to other use cases such as wholesale virtual showrooms and eCommerce.

The team behind Style3D have experience of bridging both kinds of brand-supplier relationship in a single 3D ecosystem, and their evidence is compelling.  According to them, for business models and relationships where design and production should remain separate, having a unified standard and a suite of common applications shared between brand and supplier can shorten the production process for physical samples by 2 days, and improve sample adoption rate by more than 50%.  And for more co-creative relationships, the speed of communication and the efficiency of collaboration have been improved three and even five-fold.

These relationship-specific benefits are also supplemental to more universal ones that can arise from connecting the two ends of the digital product creation cycle with common file formats, a shared cloud environment, and universal interfaces.  According to Style3D, bridging the gap between brands and suppliers this way can cut research and development cycles from 30 days to 5 days, and provide genuine transparency and visibility into the number of samples produced, the quantity of material wasted, and other critical sustainability metrics.

A virtual showroom created in Style3D.
A virtual showroom created in Style3D.

And building on the same shared systems and standards, B2B wholesale relationships can be transformed by virtual showrooms that enable both parties to see digital products and prototypes in their best possible light without the requirement to travel.

Crucially, having a 3D ecosystem that’s shared between brands and suppliers, and grows to incorporate their collective input, could potentially lead to the development and refinement of solutions and use cases that better serve both parties’ standalone use cases.  So as well as solving the immediate and often-overlooked problem of brand-supplier connectivity, a shared, end-to-end environment like Style3D could lead to a virtuous ongoing loop of design, development, simulation, iteration, and smart production that benefits the industry as a whole.

Finding 3D that can bridge the brand-supplier divide

3D assets created and rendered in Style3D.

With the initial headlong rush towards 3D adoption for design and development now settling into a steady pattern of adoption and in-house use, there is a clear opportunity for fashion to take a fresh, more inclusive look at digital product creation – one that can weave every different strand of 3D, from design to digital showroom, into a cohesive whole.

Style3D is proposing precisely that: a comprehensive SaaS platform that covers the full scope of collaborative end-to-end 3D functionality – from sketching to showcase – as well as powering a global marketplace for sourcing.  Built on a foundation of both brand and supply chain use, the Style3D ecosystem links designers, patternmakers, merchandisers, and raw material vendors together in a single ecosystem that aims to extend the value of 3D within a effortless, interlinked environment.

Because if digital product creation is going to reach the people who actually create products, rather than having its value restricted to only a small subset of users, then fashion could fall far short of its post-pandemic vision of making the value of 3D available for everyone.

About our partner: Zhejiang Linctex Digital Technology Co. Ltd. Is a leading 3D services provider for China’s fashion industry.  Its core, fashion-focused solution, Style3D, is the result of four years of dedicated research and development, and aims to help brands and their suppliers innovate their workflows.  With Style3D, fashion stakeholders can work digitally and cost-effectively from end-to-end, preparing the industry to accelerate to meet the demands of a fast-moving, digital-native market.