Released in the first-ever DPC Report 2022, this executive interview is one of a twenty-part series that sees The Interline quiz executives from major DPC companies on the evolution of 3D and digital product creation tools and workflows, and ask their opinions on what the future holds for the the extended possibilities of digital assets.

For more on digital product creation in fashion, download the full DPC Report 2022 completely free of charge and ungated.

Digital product creation in fashion seems to have reached critical mass, with more brands than ever kick-starting or scaling DPC strategies. Why now?

There are multiple factors at play. There’s significant economic uncertainty and the fashion industry is quite slow to respond to such movements. The post-pandemic consumption boom seems to be over as interest rates climb and inflation soars. At the same time, the fashion industry hasn’t been prepared for this, and products manufactured and ordered in advance are now sitting in warehouses, being sold at heavy discounts. If fashion brands were using an on-demand production model, the situation would be considerably better. Instead of trying to forecast inventory, companies would have produced and sold just what was demanded during the busier period. With an on-demand model, we could eliminate unsold inventory, reducing pressure on margins and improving certain sustainability efforts.

Today, brands are wasting time and resources dealing with excess inventory when instead they could be focusing on releasing new collections.

In addition, being agile is crucial. Fashion trends change weekly. There’s a great deal of power in the hands of the creator economy. Most notably, through social media. You simply can’t capture trends with lead times of 1–2 months. Take television merchandise for example. The product needs to be readily available at the pinnacle of the show’s success. In another 1–2 months, the next successful TV show will have captured your target consumer base.

And above everything else is sustainability. We’re in 2022, and throwing unsold garments into landfills is (or should be) a thing of the past. With on-demand, you only produce what consumers want, and when.

Being able to produce digitally, on-demand is valuable by itself, but it’s also the final stage in what can be a full end-to-end digital workflow that carries through style, colour, and other key attributes from initial design right through to print. Do you see these workflows becoming more common in the near future?

I see very clearly a future where a fashion designer opens the software, designs a product, runs it through the approvals process, and pushes it straight to the DTC store. And the production facility is perfectly capable of producing this item on demand. We’re talking about complete agility. The biggest bottleneck is the operational ability to adjust processes for highly- customised lines. For example, we can of course print fabric with a particular pattern on demand—we can even cut it automatically now—but the problem lies in the next stages: sewing, adding more complex attributes, etc.

Having production available on tap is likely to do a lot to lower barriers of entry for small brands and emerging designers, but being able to access the same network at an enterprise scale could also change the way bigger brands think about the way they work. How scalable is printing and dropshipping on demand, and how do you see the balance between small and large businesses evolving?

The on-demand model is perfect for smaller businesses as you can build a brand without worrying about large upfront investments and inventory risks. However, we’re seeing a massive shift in terms of how larger companies— particularly in fashion—think about this. They are relatively slow, and struggle with being agile. They tend to sit on billions of dollars worth of unsold inventory, with supply chains that take anywhere from 6 to 70 weeks to produce.

In terms of scalability, it still depends on product personalization methods. Digital prints on apparel (direct-to-garment) are extremely scalable. The industry has come a long way, and we’re able to produce on- demand apparel effectively and quickly through enhancements in automation. More complicated fashion items (dresses, jackets, etc.), though, are much more difficult to scale due to complex operational processes.

One of the primary justifications for producing locally is the sustainability benefit—garments that can be printed and distributed from locations as close as possible to the end consumer can have a significant impact on carbon footprints, as well as allow brands to react as quickly as possible to more regionalised demand. Tell us more about the sustainability and speed benefits of producing and printing on-demand.

Having more localised fulfilment (i.e. nearshoring) is indeed a more sustainable way to think about fashion. Shorter shipping distances mean less emissions. Producing and printing on demand also allows brands to react to fashion trends anywhere in the world quickly and in a more agile way, which results in less excess stock.

Where do you see digital product creation—and digital printing—going from here? What does the near future look like for the industry and for your business?

Companies with the most adept digital supply chains will thrive, and we can already see this. Companies like H&M have been dominating for a long time. Companies like ASOS then began to disrupt the industry, followed by ultra-fast-fashion businesses like Shein. But the latter isn’t the best example in terms of sustainability and ethical principles.

Still, building something like this, that responds to trends, scales easily, and is sustainable, is a big leap for the fashion industry.