[Featured image provided by Azim Garments.]

Key Takeaways:

  • Education and training is essential in equipping the supply chain with the tools to digitise and will aid in creating a talent pool of digital advocates.
  • Developing digital quality standards allows for benchmarking; building trust in digital products and allowing for the opportunity to increase the adoption of digital workflows.
  • The significance of digital product creation (DPC) can only be felt and understood when brands come forward to have these conversations with their supply chain partners.

I have been visiting textile mills since the early 2000s. One thing they all had in common: highly skilled people who have an innate understanding of textiles and how they are made. This is true about the industrial mill north of Shanghai that I provided training for on their first computer-aided design (CAD) system, all the way to the heritage woollen mill east of Inverness that I worked with to digitise their 60 year-old looms.

We’re currently living in an exciting era for digital product creation (DPC), as it has opened up pathways for more creativity, agility, and sustainability. In particular, working with digital fabrics has empowered designers to work with greater flexibility and efficiency – revolutionising how fabrics are conceptualised, developed, and are finally integrated into designs.

Image courtesy of Bureau 555.

For more context, digital fabrics are made of two parts: the image that contains the visual maps, and the physics data which controls how the fabric behaves in a 3D environment. However, when it comes to creating digital twins – a virtual representation or simulation of a physical product that mirrors the physical item in design, construction, and characteristics – the industry is already at a disadvantage. This is because one of the biggest indicators in the apparel and textile industry is touch, and as we cannot currently touch digital fabric, we are working with our hands tied behind our back.

So, to understand, believe, and trust digital textiles we have to rely on the visual cues available to us in terms of colour, texture, drape and movement. Who are the people best placed to spearhead this?

The mills. They are the ones who create the fabrics and who know the quality parameters, so transferring this practical and physical textile knowledge into digital textile skills is the logical next step. However, anyone who works in the apparel and textile industry knows that logic does not dictate action in the supply chain.

Image courtesy of Bureau 555.

Spindles to screens: obstacles to mill digitisation

Despite proven metrics showing that DPC has the ability to save cost, time and resources, why is the fashion industry following the same old tired and ineffective ways of working and still not adopting digital product creation, despite having also made significant investments in this pathway?

One problem is that the expectations placed on mills are higher than ever before. In the modern manufacturing era, mills are expected to make better priced textiles of a higher quality and variety, quicker, and more sustainably – all with the promise of a large order or continuing business upon completion of the job. This reminds me of the three sides of the unattainable triangle of quality, speed, and price: you can never have all of them. And now, add digital transformation to that same triangle. Spoiler – it doesn’t work.

Image courtesy of Azim Garments.

Other hurdles are that there are not enough financial resources to invest in the hardware and software to start digitising, there is a lack of digital quality standards, and there is an underdeveloped talent pool with the necessary digital skills to draw from. Linked to the latter is that digital material processing is not a job that can be done sporadically. Scanning and processing needs to be done every day to maintain a high level of digital skills. It is a process that is continuously developing and requires teams to be learning as quickly as the software, hardware, and processes are updating. Therefore, to be successful, you need a team willing to experiment, innovate with new workflows, and sometimes go back to the drawing board when a particularly tricky new material comes along.

Additionally, while we can no longer say that Bangladesh has a narrow or basic product offering – the last ten years has seen immense product diversification from outerwear through to lingerie – the more advanced materials including high shine nylons, laces, and fabrics with glitter in them are not easy to control in 3D.

Mills to move the needle

Given the challenges that the mills face, what if garment factories were the ones to digitise their fabrics first, or brands? Garment factories have a number of different routes to obtain their digital fabrics. The brands they work with might already have started digitising their core bases and supply the materials to them via their PLM system, or they might use a third party serviced scanning centre (hopefully located near them, but at the moment these are few and far between.) We are also seeing garment factories making significant investments to digitise materials to aid in-house DPC.

Image courtesy of Azim Garments.

As for brands: when they actively work with, educate and engage their vendors in their digital journey, and form a supply chain partnership, a unique knowledge exchange happens resulting in product innovation and process efficiency. Brands co-creating with their vendors and Tier 2 suppliers will provide a safe research and development space for both parties, this will allow the brands to review the digital work and the manufacturers and mills to feel supported by the brands as they digitise.

However, we strongly feel that this momentum needs to come from the mills; from the people who have fabric manufacturing in their DNA. It is important to have a highly trained textile sense when digitising fabric, we must remember that 3D textile files are more than just high quality flat images, they are sophisticated digital assets that represent the physical properties and qualities of the fabrics and not only their visual appearance.

Weaving tomorrow’s digital tapestry

Recently, I had conversations with four different garment makers in Bangladesh  who all need digital product developers. The Future of Work study commissioned by Aspire to Innovate (a2i) in Bangladesh projects that 60% of jobs (around 5.5 million) in ready made garments (RMG) are at risk due to automation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But, paradoxically, the same revolution has the potential to create 10 million new jobs. Given this, it is imperative that fashion graduates are shown that DPC is a growing area and has opportunities outside of the standard job routes apparel and textile students are trained for at university.

When digital equity is discussed, it is also important to note there is a digital gender divide and we know that women must be supported to develop the skills needed for digital transformation. The result of nurturing a diverse and inclusive talent pool is that the industry can tap into a broader range of perspectives and expertise, driving innovation and progress in digital transformation.

Alongside this, standardisation is crucial. We understand testing and standards of fabrics and garments, and they give us a framework to work within and also a benchmark that can be achieved. In an ideal world, there would be an equivalent set of standards for digital garments, fabrics and components – which would move the adoption of digital product creation forward. The perfect scenario would be an open workshop with key stakeholders from brands, manufacturers, and mills working with key digital advocates to scope out a realistic set of initial standards which can be made available publicly for our industry.