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’s a number of factors shifting the fashion industry towards DPC at the moment; a push towards becoming environmentally sustainable, restricted travel and reduced ability to meet face to face. All these factors have led to an increased awareness in the fashion industry that DPC can provide a viable solution to these issues. Add to that the realisation that there is a growing market for digital consumables. Brands are now having a close look at DPC and getting excited by the potential. They’re starting to realise that not only is DPC going to save them time and money but it opens up whole new business models and avenues of creativity, allowing them to prototype and test novel ideas that otherwise would be expensive if they used traditional methods. The technology and platforms available to put a DPC workflow together are maturing to a point where it’s no longer an experimental foray into the unknown for brands to test the waters. Pathways are being established to follow. At Bandicoot, we spend a lot of time talking to our customers to ensure that once they have created their digital fabrics, it’s clear to them what the next steps in the process are. We’ve also taken part in a number of case studies to help iron out these processes and get them mainstream. Each of these case studies reach a wide number of brands and helps with awareness.
How has the demand for digital fabrics changed as a result of the industry’s adoption of digital workflows?
It’s early days yet, but at Bandicoot we are seeing a steady increase in inquiries about digitising fabrics. These range from those that know exactly what they want and are ready to start, to people who have heard about the shift towards DPC and want to learn more. Whilst there is a growing demand for digital fabrics we are also seeing a need for an improved understanding of what can be done with digital fabrics. One thing, though, that won’t change is the demand for high quality. The brands demand a very high standard for their physical fabrics and that standard will need to be maintained (if not increased) for their digital counterparts.
How far is that demand being catered for by existing methods of material capture?
At present there are a number of available options for capturing the visual and physical aspects of materials. These products are aimed at different markets and demand different levels of user expertise. Some require a capital outlay, while others only require a single image; there is quite a variety of options for people to try. Different market segments will have different needs, different budgets, different constraints. But all of them are looking for high quality, true to life digital reproductions that look and behave like the real fabric – that isn’t a point of compromise, and it’s something Bandicoot doesn’t compromise. Second to that are two other critical aspects to consider. The first is that any hardware needed is readily accessible to buy, easy to use, maintain and replace. The second is simple integration with the ecosystem. Digital fabrics on their own are of little use – they become useful when they seamlessly import into other products that showcase them, be it a website showing an interactive digital fabric swatch, a 3D design platform, or simply a beautifully rendered still used in a sales brochure.
And can those methods scale in a way that’s cost effective?
We feel that to truly scale, you need a simple approach to digitising fabrics that can be employed at the textiles mills themselves, with minimal training/expertise needed. We like to think that we have hit a sweet spot in affordable hardware that can be bought off the shelf and used to deliver outstanding quality. We strive to deliver a simple, cost effective product that ‘just works’.
As digital-native workflows become increasingly embedded in fashion, what does it mean to create digital fabrics that are futureproof?
Digital fabrics are more than just a set of PBR texture files. A digital fabric that will meet customer needs now and in the future includes high quality visuals, material physics as well as the ability to store other technical data associated with the fabric. One of the big challenges associated with this is universal adoption of a standard format. U3M has made a great start towards this and as an open format can be adapted to meet changing needs. A mill, for instance, that wants to create digital fabrics that can be used by a variety of brands, all using different platforms, is faced with the need to create a variety of different formats. Material physics in particular is a challenge, but it is encouraging to see that there are ongoing efforts to address this by 3DRC. Finally, the digital fabrics need to be of use at all points along the workflow – from the mills using them to replace the need to physically ship fabric swatches, or at least reduce the amount shipped, to virtual sampling in 3D design for retail and eCommerce, to skins used in video games. No doubt there are uses we haven’t even imagined yet! Settling on a common standard, robust and flexible enough to meet these needs is paramount.
Whether the capture is taking place at source, in the mills, or at brand HQ, it feels as though the goal should be to create materials to an archival quality standard. What does this look like in terms of resolution, DPI, material properties etc.?
This is an important point, and one that is difficult to predict given the early stage of DPC in fashion. On one hand we are keen for the format to evolve as Bandicoot and other developers identify and incorporate new functionality into their platforms, on the other there is the risk that there may not be provisions made for backwards compatibility with older file formats, so data may become unusable. At present, 450 DPI is perfectly fine for tiled output with textures between 1K and 4K depending on the size of the patterned repeat, but we should expect that to increase in the future. Most fabrics can be well represented using the PBR standard channels of base colour, metal, roughness, normals and displacement, but we’d like to see more standards evolve around fabrics with unusual appearance, like velvet. And for all digital fabrics it is critical that the base colour is in a calibrated colour space such as sRGB so that when different digital fabrics are combined into a garment, the colours appear correctly against each other.
Digital material capture has traditionally been a hardware-first task, with software filling in the gaps. In Bandicoot’s case, replacing the bespoke hardware with off-the-shelf digital cameras shifts the emphasis on to software. Can you explain how you believe software processing can remove the requirement for dedicated hardware, and whether this requires any compromise to those archival standards we just discussed?
That’s exactly the reason Bandicoot has chosen this path. It’s a similar story to digital cameras themselves. Camera phones, for instance, rely less on hardware and make use of powerful computer vision algorithms to produce beautiful images. At Bandicoot we’ve only just started to tap the true power of software to create high quality digital fabrics. At present we are using a pure algorithmic approach, relying on our in-house expertise in image processing to create our digital fabrics using only the information captured from the photos. As we grow our database of fabrics we will start to improve the quality of the textures whilst remaining 100% faithful to the captured properties of the physical fabric. Being in the cloud allows us to go back and easily re-process as we improve our algorithms providing customers with ‘upgrades’ to their digital fabrics. The flexibility of using a handheld camera also means we are not limited in the size of scan we can take. We’ve scanned fabrics at B0 (1.1m x 0.65m). Recently, using our in-house developed stitching algorithms, we’ve scanned in patterned velvet fabrics 2m x 2m, which opens up a myriad of possibilities for the soft furnishing market. The cloud-based software approach also gives us the ability to easily and seamlessly integrate with any number of downstream systems. Regarding the archival aspects, the flexibility and agility offered by a software solution that is largely hardware agnostic should only help with this difficult problem.
The other component of a futureproof digital value chain is the question of where material capture should take place. We believe Bandicoot’s use of standard formats means its outputs can easily integrate with digital material marketplaces and collaboration tools, but do you see more uptake of affordable digitisation taking place within the brand’s walls, in the supply chain, or both?
We believe that the brands will largely be responsible for driving the shift to digital. Once they make the decision to move to DPC the onus will be on the mills to provide digital fabrics, so we see the bulk of fabric digitisation happening at the source. Leading fabric mills are already digitising their fabrics in-house at the manufacturing site using Bandicoot’s 3D fabric scanning technology. By offering designers digital 3D fabrics straight from the mill, millions of dollars are saved in shipping every year. But what is really exciting is how we see our scanning technology evolving to the point where scanning is possible with any camera. This opens up a lot of potential for anyone in the supply chain to obtain samples that can be used and shared. We envisage a platform where once a physical fabric is captured, it’s not only easy to start a 3D design but you can also locate its source and order the physical material.
And does the lower barrier to entry provide more flexibility in this respect?
Absolutely. As the technology evolves it will become easier for anyone to capture fabrics anywhere. If you’re carrying the means to capture and share high-quality digital fabrics in your pocket then the possibilities are endless.
Where do you see digital product creation – and digital assets – going from here?
Over the next five to ten years we’re going to see a shift in mindset as a result of the fashion industry adopting a digital transformation. This gives everyone creating the tools driving this shift a chance to test and refine the digital experience to improve their products and services. A big realisation for us was changing our thinking from ‘how can we sell more digital fabrics?’ to ‘how can Bandicoot give anyone interested in fashion design a fantastic experience that increases their creativity?’. How can we make this so accessible that any budding 3D fashion designer can get a start? The music industry is a great example. Twenty years ago to make music you needed a studio and professionals, today because of the accessibility of easy to use, readily available products, anyone can do it at home. As fashion technology develops, fashion design will become more accessible to everyone. And that will lead to the next generation of exciting new designers.
What does the near-future look like for the industry and for your business?
There is a groundswell now that is exciting to be a part of and to be in at the start, working with an industry that is perfectly poised to take the next steps towards revolutionising its workflows and unlocking new ways to be creative. We see ourselves playing an expanding role in not only working alongside other technology companies shaping digital workflows but also communicating the opportunities to the fashion industry. For instance raising awareness at fashion schools, where the next generation of designers are learning. Bandicoot is working with several universities, and it’s exciting to see how students push the boundaries and experiment with our technology, using it in ways we never thought of. Like all industries, fashion is being driven in new directions by an ever changing global economic outlook and brands will need to fundamentally change the way they operate to survive. As more and more brands begin to realise the potential of this new age in DPC, Bandicoot will be leading the way to ensure the digital ecosystem evolves to meet their needs. There’s a big wave coming and Bandicoot will be there to ride it.