COVID has changed a lot about how the fashion industry operates, but the biggest and most lasting shift has been towards unpredictability. Where once shoppers were drawn in by new styles but the weighting of categories remained similar, now nobody really knows what tomorrow’s retail market is going to want.  Will comfortable loungewear remain a top-performing category the way it was during lockdowns? Will so-called revenge spending drive an influx of consumers to evening gowns and suiting? Will eCommerce and brick-and-mortar stores find an equilibrium, or will digital channels continue to dominate?

In light of this uncertainty as to what the future holds, designers, brands, and retailers are having to rethink the mass production model that has served fashion for so long.  After all, as the pandemic has shown us through the crisis of unsold inventory, it’s little use making a lot of a particular type of product if changing circumstances then shift consumers’ priorities to different product categories entirely.

All of which has accentuated the desire for fashion and apparel companies to transition to a direct-to-consumer model that will allow them to produce only what the customer buys, backed by new levels of speed, supply chain agility, and manufacturing technology that support the make-to-order process.

But re-engineering the way your brand manufactures is only part of the picture. During the height of the pandemic, many design and development teams were forced to work remotely, which made it difficult to work on the creation of new styles.  And of course the consumer can only buy what’s being promoted to them visually – whether it’s produced on-demand or ahead of time, in large volumes. 

This led to an increased uptake of 3D design tools and digital product creation workflows, since these allowed designers to work on new silhouettes and concepts without the customary gap between idea and visualization – a gap that COVID had widened dramatically. By using 3D design and simulation tools designers could continue to be productive.  And by having 3D assets that could stand in for physical samples in different use cases, the output of designers’ workflows could support upstream workflows, where pattern accuracy powers production, and downstream, where virtual photography and augmented reality are transforming consumer engagement… provided those designers are working in the right 3D environment.

Designing with reality built-in:

While 3D has come a long way over the last several years, it’s important to distinguish between a solution that is going to provide an accurate depiction of your final garment and one that’s just for aesthetic purposes.

The right 3D solution will allow you to produce virtual simulations that accurately reflect the style, material, fit and texture of the actual garment. With these types of virtual samples, fashion companies will be able to streamline their design and development process by eliminating the number of physical samples required. Patternmakers can use their production-ready simulations to validate style and fit as well as make necessary changes before ever having to make a physical sample. Additionally, these virtual samples will empower companies to make smarter business decisions and offer an enhanced e-commerce experience.

“I would say the best thing about the models we worked on was the level of detail,” says Hussain Almossawi, a 3D Expert at Adidas, when asked about how successfully the brand’s 3D assets had been able to stand in for physical samples. “Especially how realistic the folds and wrinkles on the fabric looked, that would take ages to do without the right kind of pattern making and simulation.”

Crucially, as Almossawi says, having the right 3D environment and the right tools to build-in and then extend the value of digital product creation could be the key to unlocking the value of 3D assets in the broader business – and to powering on-demand production.

“By leveraging powerful tools, such as Substance by Adobe, for digital designs, brands are building a strong foundation for on demand,” says Mary McFadden, Vice President of CAD Product Management for Gerber Technology. “They’re able to become more agile, offer more personalization and feed directly into the manufacturing workflow which is very compelling to both brands and manufacturers, especially now.”

The importance of digital materials:

The pandemic has also placed the same degree of importance on digital materials and the prints and artwork that are applied to those substrates.  Whether they are scanned from physical fabrics at source, in the supply chain, or authored digitally, access to physically-accurate digital materials kept many brands afloat during the darkest days of the pandemic.  These allowed creative teams to not just visualize their ideas, but to then bring them to life through digital, on-demand production in a single, seamless workflow.

To power these workflows, Gerber Technology partnered with Substance by Adobe® , allowing our users to generate high-fidelity 3D renderings, incorporating parametric, fully-customizable materials from the 6,000+ strong Substance Source library, or from the comprehensive material authoring and procedural generation tools Substance Alchemist and Substance Designer.

 “As a designer your final goal is to have your object in the physical world,” adds Pierre Maheut, Head of Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships, 3D & Immersive, at Substance by Adobe. “With digital pipeline/manufacturing 4.0, the gap and time between 3D renderings done in Substance Painter and seeing the dress in front of you at the Gerber Innovation Center is a matter of minutes while it used to be a matter of months. This is a true game changer for the industry! It opens a wide range of workflows from creative iterations to ultra-personalized retail. It is such an exciting time to be a fashion designer TODAY.”

Using Substance tools in combination with the AccuMark® suite, designers, patternmakers and merchandising teams have been able to bring an additional level of realism to their 3D assets as well as enabling complete, end-to-end digital design and production workflows that merge 2D patterns and artwork, 3D simulation, and the full, automated, print, cut and sew process provided by Gerber’s end-to-end microfactory.

Delivering on the vision of digital design to on-demand production:

During the second wave of the pandemic, 2D and 3D artist Guilherme Marconi decided to test this end-to-end vision to its fullest – illustrating a series of new prints (with parametric details that could be switched on and off on the fly) in Adobe Illustrator and Substance Designer, bringing in colors from Pantone Connect, and then working in Gerber’s AccuMark® suite and Substance Painter to bring those prints to life on t-shirts and shoes.

Although Marconi was an experienced artist and illustrator, he, by his own admission had “little technical knowledge” and yet was able to replicate a full print design, 3D modelling, and texturing workflow using a combination of cutting-edge software.

But beyond that, Guilherme was able to see his prints applied to real garments with the help of Gerber Technology’s microfactory, which combines direct digital printing, synchronized with leading cutting hardware, and a sew and finishing service to demonstrate the viability of an entirely end-to-end digital workflow.

“It’s a unique experience to see a product that was designed completely digitally brought to life – not just in 3D, but as a physical garment that can be worn in the real world as well,” Marconi says.  “And the truly incredible part is that there were no analog links in the chain at all:  from Substance Designer and Substance Painter, which enabled my material authoring and texturing, to Gerber’s AccuMark, where the colours and patterns I’d envisioned joined an accurate 3D simulation.  This means that across all this steps, no material was wasted, and none of the usual delays and iterations that characterize traditional design and development occurred.  This makes me incredibly excited for the future, since we already have the opportunity to create something completely unique, and to see it realized at the end of a completely digital workflow.”

Today, Guilherme is able to actually wear a garment that was born digitally and produced in a native digital environment – all without a single analog gap.  And while his work demonstrates the power of 3D design, simulation, digital materials, and on-demand production to support individual designers, the same technologies are already being used to scale make-to-order and digital workflows for brands and retailers.

In short, the ability to go from render to real is already here.

To see more of this workflow in action: Gerber and Adobe collaborated on a joint webinar earlier this year, presenting guidance on how to use AccuMark 2D and 3D to design and customize a garment with Substance Painter – and then to apply colors, effects and finishes, and to follow Guilherme Marconi’s examine and produce the garment a complete print, cut and sew process using Gerber’s end-to-end microfactory.  A recording of the full end-to-end process, from the idea to the final product is available to watch online: watch the webinar here.