Surrounded by once-in-a-century events, many industries are still learning how to not only cope, but thrive, with the unprecedented effects of the last couple of years. The fashion industry in particular has taken sweeping steps to prepare itself for a near-term future where disruption reigns and digitization is essential, including shoring up supply chains and re-prioritising retail channels.

But perhaps the industry’s most profound shift over the last two years has been towards digital product creation (DPC) – an umbrella term that captures everything from material digitization and 3D pattern simulation to the use of 3D assets downstream, in eCommerce and other customer-facing experiences.

Together, Kalypso and The Interline helped to benchmark the uptake of DPC technologies and processes around the turning point of 2020/2021. We found that discrete applications of digital product technology were a vital lifeline for brands and retailers during the darkest days of the pandemic.

Creative designers who had suddenly been uprooted from their offices had a way to quickly bring new ideas to life, and to share them with merchandising teams and other decision-makers. Garment technicians with no access to physical samples could test fit and simulate pattern changes in an instant. Organizations who had the capability to create digital assets could use them to sell-in to consumers and wholesale partners. Companies that had not invested in DPC were left scrambling to adjust.

As a direct result of these and other high-value discrete use cases, most brands now have a formal DPC strategy to realize targeted benefits – either newly conceived as a response to COVID or an existing strategy that gained importance and attracted greater investment during that time.

So what’s next?

The Interline spoke to Alison Coddaire, subject matter expert in the DPC practice at Kalypso, about the effects of COVID and the need for brands to scale their DPC strategies in 2022.

“Digital product creation has quickly progressed from being something that some brands were piloting in particular areas, or tackling in a siloed way, to being business-critical for everyone. Pre-pandemic, an end-to-end digital pipeline was the target for brands on the leading edge, but now it is a vision that nearly all apparel and footwear brands share: the desire to create in 3D and to then make use of that digital asset everywhere, both up and downstream,” Coddaire noted.

Although recent crises have changed the urgency of the conversation, the promise of a more comprehensive approach to DPC goes far beyond risk mitigation and operational stability. Brands that put the effort into scaling their DPC initiatives can now address pressure points and operational imperatives, but also unlock real sources of extended value in both expected and unexpected areas.

“COVID impacted everything about the apparel industry in a profound way, and we’re still seeing those impacts everywhere from consumer behaviour to shipping. The pressure is still on for brands to control spiralling costs, make more concrete sustainability commitments, increase speed to market, and maintain margin. Many of them are, correctly, looking to scale their DPC capabilities to address those concerns,” Coddaire explained.

But while the apparel industry now has a common target for its holistic DPC ambitions, very few brands have reached it. As our research identified, most use cases for 3D remain standalone or disconnected from the broader enterprise technology ecosystem and tend to reach the organization in silos. Consequently, many of their DPC strategies are stalling.

As more departments within a company, including design, IT, manufacturing and product development, integrate 3D tools into their daily work, companies are also facing growing pains such as technical hurdles and cultural or educational gaps within in-house talent

In many ways, this is expected. The value of DPC in its discrete form can be incredibly potent: early adopters have been able to slash costs, empower creativity, transform the way they engage with consumers or make major inroads into reducing their environmental impact. However, the difficulty now comes from doing all those things at once.

The promise of tackling current industry challenges, while simultaneously opening the door to entirely new possibilities, make an extremely compelling case for the vital importance of DPC. It can deliver powerful compounded results on top of results achieved in individual areas. But crucially, those compounded results will only come through the adoption of a holistic, enterprise-wide digitisation strategy that can respond to external pressures and lay a foundation for the future.

The fashion industry – and the world around it – may be moving on from the pandemic, but we are not necessarily seeing a return to stability or a smooth onramp back to profitability.

“When you have a digital design and development pipeline, you’re eliminating the cost of physical samples, of course, but you can also look at completely reversing the interaction between making and selling,” says Alison. “Instead of waiting for product photography, which in turn needs other pieces to fall into place, you can substitute a digital sample to promote and sell the product before it gets near a distribution centre. And brands can apply the same philosophy even earlier in the product lifecycle, putting digital assets in front of consumers and collecting their input on pricing, colour, and other variables – then only pushing into production those styles that test well.”

When it comes to laying those foundations, though, brands and retailers do not have the luxury of time, which is why growing numbers are looking to not just scale their DPC strategies, but also accelerate them.

“Many brands have been able to obtain significant returns from their focused applications of DPC, with very specific use cases. We help our clients define how to connect those use cases and build out the entire pipeline by utilizing 3D assets throughout the digital thread,” adds Alison.

“From virtual fit to factory collaboration, and as far as putting those assets in front of the consumer, the real target today is making use of DPC capabilities and connected data to drive efficiencies across the product development process. Our accelerator is built in a way that empowers a brand to start not just executing new pilots in new areas, but also building a roadmap to long-term transformation in the way they develop product. And that’s a journey that looks different for every organisation as they move up the pyramid of DPC capabilities, and as they discover how the results of one layer can help pay for the next.”

Kalypso’s approach to DPC is also focused on much more than software selection and integration – a key point, since many (if not most) brands are now working with multiple different 3D solutions across different product categories, with strong options already available for apparel and footwear. Instead, it zeroes in on the process and cultural transformation that needs to accompany the technology.

“A lot of executives have now realised that the companies of the future cannot operate with the tools of the past,” Alison concludes. “Fundamentally, digital product creation is not about deploying technology – it’s a process change that has a technology component.”

Coddaire explained that to do DPC right, it is necessary to change the way people work and how brands discover, create, make and sell products. The philosophy of DPC must be embedded into an organization rather than just having it act as a layer on top. Scaling and accelerating DPC does not mean moving faster to keep ahead of change – it means modernizing the way an organization operates.

And when it comes to post-pandemic priorities, it’s difficult to imagine a stronger message – and a bigger possible return than that.

About our partner: Kalypso: A Rockwell Automation Business provides a comprehensive set of services to help clients apply digital across the innovation value chain. Discover more about Kalypso’s approach to Digital Product Creation.