This article was originally published in the first-ever DPC Report 2022. For more on digital product creation in fashion, and other perspectives on the sustainability impact of digital fashion, download the full DPC Report 2022 completely free of charge and ungated.

A mature, scalable Digital Product Creation ecosystem should allow new and evolving technologies to be quickly and easily integrated, maximising the ability to leverage industry innovation to reduce cycle time and inform new designs.

Achieving this requires interoperability between upstream and downstream systems. There are open standards for data exchange, but few exist for the creation and consumption of digital assets. This hinders the development of cost-effective DPC workflows that comprise solutions f rom multiple vendors. Originating in the Media and Entertainment sector, the new OpenAssetIO standard defines common dialogues between content creation tools and data management systems. Facilitating more modular, scalable and efficient DPC workflows. In this article, Tom Cowland takes a look at the ideas behind this new open standard and invites you to help shape the future of how fashion’s tools can interact with the data we make.

Imagine a future, where scalable DPC workflows integrate seamlessly with upstream and downstream processes. Enabling rapid delivery of unique designs and providing detailed insight into the entire lifetime of a product. Where new tools and technologies can be easily incorporated into existing solutions without the need for custom development or wholesale change. Such a future, built f rom interoperable components, allows us to leverage cross-industry advances in 2D and 3D design and visualisation technologies, whilst maintaining familiar concepts and terminology. This future not only results in more effective product development, but more sustainable and environmentally friendly workflows – both in the physical and digital space. Streamlined processes and iteration cycles, result in a significant reduction to the overall carbon footprint.

Today, DPC solutions require the tight integration of numerous components that aren’t designed to work together. Physical scanners, 3D authoring and visualisation packages and traditional production CAD systems all must exchange data. Factor in e-commerce platforms and metaverse applications, and the sheer number of independent systems, each with their own data formats and APIs quickly becomes untenable. The integration effort required for any given tool severely offsets any specific value it may be able to bring to enhance product development efficiency.

Looking back over the last 20 years at the evolution of DPC within the broader computer graphics industry, efficiency and innovation blossomed when the approach began to evolve away from closed proprietary solutions in favour of interoperability. Creatives demanded the ability to combine tools from multiple vendors to create a coherent workflow far bigger than any view of the world that one single-source solution can support.

Notably, this flexibility has been achieved through significant investment by tool creators in open data formats. Specifically ones that can be easily integrated, and extended by any vendor without a complex licensing model. Adoption of these non-proprietary standards has resulted in out-the-box, collaborative, multi-tool workflows evolving at unheard-of rates. Users are empowered to connect distant ends of their workflow together, without the need for complex data conversion processes and custom software development.

An example of this change is Pixar’s USD. It is an open source 3D scene description format. It was developed to handle the complexity of several thousand artists concurrently working on a single animated feature film. This project has been adopted and employed in a diverse variety of new business sectors. NVIDIA has used it as a foundation of OmniverseTM — including compelling design visualization solutions for Architecture and Automotive to name a few. Apple has built a streamlined 3D augmented reality framework based on USD – geared towards consumer e-commerce and entertainment. The underlying efforts in all these areas has led to native support of the USD format in a whole range of DCC tools, renderers and game engines. This allows data created by one of these tools to be read by others, without the extensive bespoke customization and data conversion processes previously required.

This is the first step towards interoperability. Open data formats are an essential prerequisite to truly scalable and flexible workflows. They facilitate a simpler exchange of work, but they don’t help manage how this is done. Product creation ecosystems are frequently built around a PLM (or similar). These data management systems ensure users have the correct information available to them, and their individual outputs are properly tracked and propagated throughout the work process. New tools need to be connected into these PLM systems in order to function effectively.

The work to integrate new software into a managed workflow currently forms a significant barrier to adoption. The development effort required to connect the proprietary APIs of each tool to that of the PLM system becomes onerous. The result is frequently that either the tool is not adopted, or its use is somewhat manual, time-consuming and/or error prone.

To take advantage of new and innovative technologies in our workflows, they need to be easy to integrate into existing workflows. We need a standard for how to connect specific-purpose applications and tools into an end-to-end managed environment, with minimal development effort.

This is not a new problem.

The Media and Entertainment sector has long faced this exact same problem – how to connect software from a variety of independent vendors. Significant local R&D expenditure on pipeline integration is not a sustainable model. A business’s competitive edge can, and should come from something other than “better glue code”. This year, under the stewardship of the Academy Software Foundation, the M&E community is working together on a new, open, standard for workflow integration – OpenAssetIO.

The goal is to remove the need for API-specific glue code to be written in order to integrate a tool within a managed workflow. Allowing for individual tools to be swapped-out as required whilst maintaining a coherent, well managed data flow.

Drawing on techniques validated over twenty years in production, the project defines a common interoperability standard to connect tools that consume or create digital assets, with the systems that manage them. OpenAssetIO enabled software can directly connect with similarly enabled PLM and data management systems to coordinate the publishing and loading of data. This isn’t limited to files on disk. The API allows the management of conceptual information such as products, colorways and SKUs. It also allows user-facing interface elements to be delegated to the management systems to provide a seamless user-experience that is less prone to operator error.

The project does not define the nature of the data exchanged between the systems, but how to find the required data and where new data should be stored.

The project is currently working its way towards a “v1”. This is being done as a genuine open source, community effort with a multi-organization steering group. The current focus is within the Media & Entertainment sector but, by design, it is industry agnostic. Visualisation and DPC pipelines in apparel, arch-viz, automotive, gaming and film all share technologies and face equivalent integration challenges.

By working together on interoperability, through open data formats and standardised dialogues between tools and systems, we can revolutionise DPC. There is a future where we can draw a through-line that follows a garment from cradle to grave – via material scanners, CAD tools, manufacturing hardware to storefront systems and post- sale experiences/socials – all powered by innovative, cutting edge technologies. We can then close the loop – truly integrated visibility of each development cycle empowers us to evolve and refine the design and delivery of the next.

If you are interested in helping build a better connected, more interoperable future for DPC tooling, come and join the conversation—and help forge a new way for us to build our workflows.

Find out more about the OpenAssetIO standard: