Released in the first-ever DPC Report 2022, this executive interview with Mark Harrop of WhichPLM (who also serves as a Board Advisor to The Interline) 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.

What do you see as being the key differences between 3D, which has a long legacy in fashion, and digital product creation?

They are essentially the same in their objective, but with the key difference being scope. Where 3D projects were normally confined to quite narrow applications that began and ended at well-defined stages of the product lifecycle, digital product creation (DPC) begins life much earlier and extends much later – to the extent that there is almost no part of the product journey that it doesn’t touch.

The fashion industry has concentrated for a long time on the creative end of the spectrum, with 2D CAD and 2D CAM being supplemented (and in some cases transformed) by 3D, but we are now starting to see brands, retailers, and manufacturers really unboxing the potential of digital- native working and extending it everywhere from initial concept right through to downstream retail.

As a result, where we once tracked 3D solutions and processes in a concentrated segment of the fashion value chain, we now see more than twenty different solution categories – each with their own data inputs and outputs – that together make up a more complete, end-to-end digital product creation workflow.

I don’t believe that any technology vendor or any brand has truly maximised the potential of that full end-to-end digital workflow, but the key difference today is that many are actively working to bring that full vision to life, instead of settling for smaller, more isolated use cases.

Digital product creation in fashion seems to have reached critical mass, with more brands than ever kick-starting or scaling DPC strategies. Why now? Are we seeing a technology change, a cultural evolution, or a combination of those and other factors?

It’s important to remember that none of the ideas behind digital product creation are completely new. Many businesses have already been able to realise serious value from their investments in digitising design, patternmaking, material planning, and more. The pandemic and the hype curve around digital fashion have definitely raised more awareness of some of the potential end points for digital assets, but realistically we are seeing DPC reach an inflection point rather than seeing any entirely new ideas being proposed.

So I don’t believe the question is whether fashion has now stumbled on a new opportunity, but instead whether the industry is in the right position – and has the right mindset – to really tackle both the technological and cultural aspects of rebuilding its ways of working up and downstream.

The positive side to this is that there are now more sources of value, and greater opportunities than ever to realise a return on investment in DPC. The negative side is that the scope and scale of the change required to deliver on more complete digitisation are vast, and they are going to demand integration, best practice adoption, and radical process re-engineering. There is much more to consider today than which 3D design tool to invest in.

What are the primary barriers to wide-scale DPC adoption today? Solution maturity? Integration? Mindset and culture? Executive sponsorship? Or a combination of them all?

The major barriers are no longer technological. There will always be improvements to be made in material capture, fabric simulation, virtual costing, augmented reality and much more, but the reality is that there are solutions to most of the fashion industry’s major challenges, and viable platforms to explore for taking advantage of new opportunities.

Instead, the issue is one of process maturity and a lack of clear, codified best practices. It’s easy for a brand, a retailer, or a manufacturer to claim that they are experienced in DPC, when it’s more likely that they have seen success from deploying 3D scanning or authoring tools in a specific, focused way, but that has been the extent of their DPC strategy so far.

From this perspective, organisations need to realise the differences between 3D and DPC, and to conduct honest appraisals of whether they truly have gone after the latter, or whether they have only obtained good-but-limited results from 3D. Because I can foresee scenarios where a brand assumes that knowledge of 3D will automatically translate into success in digitising the extended value chain, when in fact the two are very different prospects.

A lot of brands are particularly interested in the new business models that can be built from digital assets that become digital goods, and from the nebulous promise of the Metaverse. Do you see a link between the reasons to create digital workflows today (that support and streamline the creation of physical end products) and those new business models, or should brands be looking at these as two separate opportunities?

I believe brands should start by ensuring that the value chains that contribute to the creation of their physical products are as streamlined as possible. There are strong business cases today for controlling costs, overhauling sustainability, unlocking creativity and much more – all of which can be realised through intelligent deployment of 3D and digital product creation tools.

That streamlining will then also make it easier for the industry to mirror the physical world in the digital world, and to begin to both extend the value of existing digital assets, or to explore the possibility of creating entirely new, all-digital styles that make use of the same tools, workflows, pipelines and skillsets.

If fashion tries to rush into the metaverse too quickly, we’ll find that virtual worlds will be half empty!

Where do you see digital product creation – and digital assets – going f rom here? What does the near- future look like for the industry?

I refer to the work that fashion has done towards 3D so far as being the industry’s “laboratory” phase, and it’s now time to outgrow that experimentation. The technology is mature enough, and the opportunities up and downstream are compelling enough that every brand that has already implemented 3D to some extent should be looking to now scale that initiative. And brands, retailers, and manufacturers who haven’t yet made their first steps have never had a better time than now!

I believe the near future of digital product creation is going to be built by a wide range of partners working together – each providing interoperable digital assets that, in turn, become the inputs of the next stage in the value chain. Working together in this way will be the key to unlocking the real possibilities of DPC.

It will also be vital for the fashion and textile sectors to improve their own in- house capabilities, at the same time as making use of the digital expertise that exists in their supply chains. From talent to process maturity, fashion has some foundational pieces that need to be put in place if the industry is going to achieve its DPC ambitions.