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3D: Lost in Vis/rtualisation

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In her fourth featured article with us, resident Expert Dr Evridiki Papahristou explores the changing fashion market, and the confusion in the 3D virtual prototype technology field. Evridiki is a devoted fashion engineer with a research focus in the effective integration of 3D virtual prototype in the apparel industry, and sits on our Expert panel in implementing and adopting 3D.

The majority of reports, surveys, trends and research I’ve seen have been pointing out the importance of the digital ‘catching up’ that the apparel industry needs to go through, when compared to other industries. The fast fashion phenomenon and changing consumer preferences have changed the landscape for start-ups as well as established brands, turning technology suppliers’ attention to the industry’s specific needs to adapt, expand and become digital.

At the same time, early adopters of the digital integration into their processes are showing their successful results, winning many rounds in fostering innovation, cutting costs, increasing transparency to manage sustainability and gaining share of customer spend, when compared to their competitors.

Everyone knows that technology investment is critical if we want to stay in business tomorrow.

The technology supply market, targeting prospective fashion & apparel companies, has become bigger than ever. Companies on the other end, want to invest but are confused of the many technology propositions adding up to their already existed “fear of failure”.

This article will try to clear up the confusion in the 3D virtual prototype technology field. 3D Design & Virtual Prototyping, although considered to be an essential technology in the modern product development process with advantages hard to neglect, shows low-to-very-low level of maturity implementation. Along with predictive analytics and automatic/dynamic inbound planning in logistics, 3D virtual prototyping holds its place in the wide gap to close, if digitisation is to achieve its full impact potential in the product development process.

If you are not confused, you are not paying attention[1]

Most manufacturers begin the design phase in the traditional manner with stylists’ creative ideas originating essentially from a 3D shape (a 3D conceptual idea in mind or a completed garment already existing) from which 2D information is extracted, such as 2D sketches, 2D patterns with corresponding fabric layers (3D-to-2D stage). In the past, every brand would have designers creating styles, and next-door stitchers would produce the prototypes so that they could see the results straight away. The design studio was staffed with people with different areas of expertise and equipped with sewing machines operated by stitchers[2].

Today, the industry is going through the notorious digital transformation. In today’s fashion world, trends and consumer expectations move at the speed of digital. Fashion makers need to keep up, constantly offering new product selections and experiences. When combined with unprecedented access to information (whether accurate or not) through social media, the Internet, fairs and exhibitions or in-house demonstrations, fashion brands have lost trust. Lost trust in technological advances that are moving at breakneck speed and somehow lost trust in vendor companies who are trying to push their products into the market. A market with new entrants like retail giant Amazon which recently developed an AI Fashion Designer (based on machine learning & Generative Adversarial Network) to bolster its apparel business[3]. A market hungry to invest, but afraid of risks and failure.

3D virtual prototype is the latest challenging example of how “lost in translation” our late-to-adopt-new-ways-of-working industry can be. Similar with the other buzz-word “AI- aka Artificial Intelligence”, the message for the fashion and apparel industry is clear: we can not afford to ignore them both. Yet, according to a recent research of Drapers & Apptus[4] 82% of UK fashion retailers wanted to invest in AI and 90% were “excited” about the possibilities of AI, particularly when it comes to analysing buying and merchandising data. Despite these overwhelming numbers, few had begun the journey to incorporate it onto their business, citing cost and lack of know-how as the leading obstacles.

In my first article here on WhichPLM, In Between Fashion Battles with Technology, 3D is not the enemy, I explored how the fashion business and the fashion industry have been slow on the uptake because it wasn’t as refined as it is today. We are at a point where it’s not only easier to use but it’s also much more realistic. 3D technology providers have been launching marketing campaigns, international events (involving the industry and academic institutions), dedicated to the transition the fashion industry needs to go through – the concept of three-dimensional working processes not only on the product development side but in marketing and e-commerce as well.

At this point, confusion begins. During my Ph.D research on the effective integration of 3D virtual prototype in the product development process, I discovered that there are different perceptions on the way 3D prototyping technologies have changed (and to what extent) the traditional development process. Joshua Young, Digital Product Creation Consultant, with many years of experience in NIKE, believes that big companies who adopt 3D in their processes aren’t always concerned with getting closer to market; they may wish to give more time back to design teams, for instance. Digital prototypes, for those companies, are used to get better prototypes sooner so that the end product is better. They want to reduce the workload that the team has so they can concentrate on the truly innovative styles.

At the beginning of 3D prototyping entering the fashion market, the motto of the vendor companies was to reduce samples. What I personally discovered through personal interviews with executives and 3D users, was that indeed, the companies who have embraced 3D virtual as part of their development cycle experimented first starting from the development of the final garment trying to reduce samples. In the process, however, they piloted in the early stage of the concepts’ design and presentation in order to enhance the creation phase.

3D virtual : Looking good or looking real?

In the first part (reducing samples) the virtual prototype has to look real. The user does not just seek for a simulation of virtual fit on an avatar. The avatar has to be a 3D virtual representation of a body fit model based on the client’s actual body measurements. The patterns should be real and digitised. The stitching of the patterns and the construction of the final garment should look real. The fabric parameters should be entered in a certain way that the outcome is a true-to-life virtual garment.

In the second part (enhancing the creation phase), the creator wants to produce a garment that looks good. The purpose in this case is to enable closer collaboration between functions throughout the production development process even in marketing, sales, creating virtual showrooms and virtual catwalks. In this case, the pattern developer is not needed; nor the fabric scanner and analyser or the proper virtual fit model of the candidate customer.

A vision for the future

3D design could be a real game-changer for the industry, unlocking far-reaching innovation in design[5]. As the CTO of one vendor company stated during a personal interview, “All real clothes might have their own 3D models. Then a synchronisation between real-world and virtual-world can be realised.”

I totally agree. I strongly believe that 3D virtual will eventually become an essential tool for an apparel company as long as the company decides on the use of the 3D solution. 3D Visualisation can be used at the early stage of the product development cycle and designers can substitute 2D sketches with 3D virtual design. A real sample is not needed. 3D Virtualisation can be a real help to check the balance and errors of the pattern, reduce samples, apply innumerable iterations in reduced lead times. A pre-production real sample is definitely needed.

Therefore, apparel companies should not get left behind and miss the ticket to the digital transformation journey because, at some point, they were lost in translation or being misguided by the vendor companies themselves. This journey is a promising, exciting and certainly rewarding one at every station. The fear of failure is mainly caused by the confusion. Decide on what the company needs, make a choice and integrate all elements to deliver the digital transformation faster and with much greater impact. 3D included!

[1] Quote from Peters Tom, “Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution”, 1991, Harper Perennial

[2] Papachristou Evridiki & Bilalis Nikolaos (2016). “Can 3D prototype conquer the apparel industry?”Journal of Fashion Technology & Textile Engineering, 4:2

[4]Artificial Intelligence: The Future of Online Merchandising”, July 2017, Drapers and Apttus

[5]The apparel sourcing caravan’s next stop: Digitization”, September 2017, McKinsey Apparel CPO Survey 2017

Evridiki Papahristou Dr. Evridiki Papahristou is a devoted fashion engineer and an assistant professor in the scientific field of clothing 3D virtual prototyping. She began her studies at the University of Kent in European Fashion/Product development but after working as a fashion designer in a design studio in Milan she continued her studies with a Master’s degree researching new technologies in apparel. With many years of professional practise/expertise in CAD systems and more than 20 years in academia, she has trained many of today’s executives in digital fashion product development trying to bridge the gap between academia and industry. Her Ph.D uniquely blended fashion and engineering, trying to explore new ways of implementing and adopting new technologies like 3D and PLM. She loves research and her current focus is in applying AI technology tools in the product development process of apparel.