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3D; what’s it all about?

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Lucy Royle shares her second exclusive article with WhichPLM here. In her first instalment in this series she explored ‘The Pencil Revolution’ and the transformative ways of working for designers in our industry; in this second piece, she delves into the world of 3D. As a self-proclaimed ‘3D novice’, Lucy set out to explore what it means to designers as, in her own words, ‘3D just doesn’t feel like a natural home for us creative types.’

Lucy RoyleWhat’s all this 3D talk?

There’s a new buzzword in fashion but, unlike the usual transitory trend obsessions, this one is set to stay; 3D. And I confess to being somewhat late to the scene on this one, given that the industry has been talking about it for the last decade and, rather excitedly, for the last couple of years. It’s set to absolutely revolutionise our way of working, completely overhauling development processes and transforming the way that products are brought to market. For a complete novice, like myself, it’s admittedly an intimidating concept; the word in itself – ‘three-dimensional’ – sounds so technical and mathematical, steeped in a connection with automotive and engineering industries that are so far removed from the tactile world of the fashion designer’s playground. To put it simply, 3D just doesn’t feel like a natural home for us creative types.

Yet it’s becoming a reality, and to coin a long term phrase, ‘it’s the future.’ With major apparel brands already adopting the software, and with around 20% of technology vendors offering 3D solutions at this year’s Product Innovation Apparel event (an event held in June in New York, dedicated to PLM & 3D), it’s time to start listening and to find out more.

Having only been introduced to the concept of 3D design in fashion a matter of weeks ago, I took up some incredibly informative reading from writers and industry experts who have been working and researching 3D software for the last 20 years, and what I have learned can certainly turn the most sceptical 3D doubters – myself included – into 3D advocates.

3D solutions have been circulating the Apparel market since the mid 90s, where 3D was used primarily for footwear design. But it’s clear that the reason clothing designers have struggled with 3D in the past has been its complexity, limited scientific and visual adaptability and relevance to the apparel industry. More suited to simulating rigid and sturdy structures, softwares in the past have struggled to replicate the material properties of sheer fabrics, making rendering stiff and difficult to visualise without the natural shadowing and draping features that are so important to a garment. Not only that, but the working environments were complicated and unfriendly, more suited to use by product designers and architects who had been specifically trained in the complex user interfaces that are commonly found in engineering. In fact, a determining factor for the delay on the adoption of the software into the fashion industry has been the understandable resistance from apparel designers who have struggled with the 3D user experience, and been unable to use the software to truly realise their design visions.

The good news is that in recent years, the technology has started to shift towards a greater degree of believability and acceptance within the industry and now high-end designers, both Chanel and Iris van Herpen included, have found a place for 3D on the catwalks. It’s vogue presence immediately gives apparel designers something more tangible to connect with – if it’s on the runway, it will in some form or another, end up in our wardrobes. It instantly provides a platform for engagement and makes for a favourable association for the place of 3D technology in fashion design. But it’s not just high fashion that’s leading the way; during my research for this article I also came across Danit Peleg, a graduate of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Israel, who created her entire final collection using a 3D printer. Combining a set of geo-structures, including the Mesostructured Cellular Material by Andres Bastian (definitely worth a Google), the small collection of five garments took more than 2,000 hours to create with each A4 sized printed panel taking 20 hours to print. The results are beautiful, like lace, and are an affirmative indication that there’s a new generation of designer surfacing – one who can unify creativity with forward-thinking technological understanding. [Editor’s note: some of Peleg’s designs can be seen in our Gerber ideation 2015 report; Peleg and Gerber have since finalised their partnership.]

It’s the very notion of fashion and technology becoming more unified that can make for a very exciting future in apparel design. What was once theorised as ‘wearable technology’ in textbooks is becoming commonplace, and the adoption of 3D across the RFA industry paves the way for a revolution not just for designers, but for consumers too.

What does it mean for me?

So what does 3D technology mean for the day to day workings of the office-based designer? In my previous article, I discussed the value of working in 2D with a library of pre-determined vector sketched product components (which still remains a valued way of working even in the face of changing technologies), but in a 3D sketchup environment the designer would be working with a centralised database of material designs, compositions and detailed material characteristics. This would include a fully featured materials library and a catalogue of exhaustive material information including properties related to weight, visual appearance, stretch and drape. The avatar remains key, but this time would be informed by body scanning information to help provide a scientific copy of the human body that relates to a retailer or brand’s target consumer and real life fit models  – as a technology, body scanning is nothing new, but it can completely change the way we design and sample clothing when used  in collaboration with 3D drawing.

Sketching 2

And this is where things start to become pretty incredible, because these avatars are based on actual body-scanned information constituting a global database of over 400,000 body scans that span different ethnicities and body types from over 26 countries. This data has been compiled by industry figurehead Alvanon, who recognises that the importance of fit for fashion – and the consistency of it – is precious to a brand’s success. According to Alvanon, in today’s apparel market over 30% of all fashion bought is returned and nearly 90% of consumers will not return to a brand if they have a bad fit experience. By bringing body scanning technology and data into the design office, we can really start to see the true value of designing in 3D, given that the designer is working to exacting customer sizing and fit specifications. This means that at any point during the sampling workflow, the garment will remain accurate to fit within a 2cm tolerance of acceptability for the specific outer body type of the end user for which it is intended. I understand from my own experience as a designer that consistency of fit is a recurrent problem when working across a global network of suppliers; although the same specification for a garment will be shared across, it will undoubtedly be interpreted differently by suppliers in Sri Lanka to suppliers in Turkey. When working to traditional sampling methods, there’s always that degree of chance and interpretation, which absorbs hefty chunks of both time and money.

Another benefit to 3D working is the sharing of the visual image. In my experience working with manufacturers all over the globe, I have found the most powerful form of communication between myself and an overseas supplier was a visual one, and I’m certainly welcoming of any technology that can make this sharing of information clearer and more efficient.

With 3D prototyping, everyone is speaking the universal language of the visual image. So, where in 2D we used a standardised avatar on which to place a collection of accurately drawn garment components, in 3D we’re building a scaled garment simulation on a life-like mannequin that remains relative-to-scale throughout the entire workflow, enabling all people involved in the process – from wherever they may be located in the world – to work and collaborate on a connected and commonly understood interface. At all stages of design, product development and detailed manufacturing, information sharing remains cohesive and united, which facilitates a much more efficient and accurate way of working than with a physical sample that has been cut, pinned, sellotaped and annotated with marker pen before being shipped to the other side of the world (with the hope there’s no delay at customs en route).

3D just holds the most incredible potential in the streamlining of garment sampling and prototyping. Working as a designer myself, I’m fully aware of the frustrations that arise out of the design office, not limited to: disappointments at suppliers not realising the design vision with enough accuracy’ setbacks in prototyping due to overloaded sample rooms; and the inevitable parcel delays when samples are frantically required for presentation. With the pressure of the speed at which the industry is now working, 3D prototyping is the guaranteed way of expediting product to market, and is already being championed by leading industry brands including Adidas, Target, Nike, Under Armour and F&F at Tesco to name just a few of the 3D pioneers.

Backpack girl

I know from my own experience as a designer, that the over-riding bulk of expenditure in the department is in the making and development of samples, which isn’t just limited to the costs of fabrics and labour, but also includes the costs of shipping the multiple samples throughout their various stages of development back and forth to suppliers based all over the globe. With an industry estimate of $6 – $8 billion per year spent on sampling alone, there’s prime opportunity to utilise 3D working to streamline the process and reduce the hefty workload of traditional sampling by using a more accurate visual interface through which to share and send information. This comes with considerable benefits, not least of all a sizeable improvement on environmental impact.

But doesn’t all this technology devalue the role of the designer?

With a chunky reduction in development time, sampling and shipping costs, and with an overall increase in efficiency, designers are equipped to bring product to market at speeds which reflect shorter product lead times. Consumers are constantly demanding newness, and retailers are poised to consistently deliver above and beyond expectation, but with all this new technology, we must be careful to protect the integrity and value of a designer – they are not to just become an operative in a logistical supply chain, and a means to satisfy an ever-demanding market for the latest ‘thing’. In theory, the balancing argument follows that with more time freed up from chasing samples and shipping agents, the designer has more time to spend thinking exactly as a designer should – innovatively and creatively – with more opportunity to spend designing.

And the designer can be working on a much more focused product offering too. It’s understood that with the process of traditional sampling, designers are working on a large number of samples that far outweigh the number of styles that actually make it through to retail. 3D has the power to slim down this process, by giving end-to-end visibility across the workflow and enabling designers to make more informed development decisions upfront.

We must also remember that designers hold extremely valued traditional skills of craftsmanship – printing, pattern cutting and colour theory amongst them – which must not be lost in the digital age. Whilst the digital wave is weighted with the promise of a working revolution, it will be the traditional skilled knowledge of the designers that will facilitate the product getting to market. Their skill sets will remain highly respected, but the new technologies will equip them to innovate and create like we’ve never known before, and this not only makes the future of a designer’s role a very positive one, but an exciting one too.

What’s the future for us?

So, as designers, there’s a lot of newness heading our way: new technology, new working processes and new ways of communicating that hold a transformative power to the traditional design sheet and tech pack. It’s perhaps no longer a question of comprehension; as designers, we can all see the benefits – it’s a question of implementation and how we go about it. For many of us, it’s a scary prospect; we’re not just talking about a new software here, we’re talking about the introduction of a whole new dimension, and this comes with understandable doubt, skepticism and a fear of the unknown. The introduction of 3D requires an acceptance of a more digital way of working that’s just as sizeable a feat as the implementation of the software itself.

Yet we all know the fashion industry to be one of the most resilient and adaptable industries in the face of change, and perhaps the greatest industry indicator of market trends amongst cultural and societal developments. These changes won’t happen overnight – there’s still a long way to go, and thankfully so, because as a designer there’s a lot to learn and get accustomed to.

Who is educating our designers of tomorrow?

As I discussed in my previous article, I’m passionate about students getting the best level of education possible at university so that they are well equipped to join one of the fastest paced and multinational industries in the world. It’s important that there’s an awareness made in fashion schooling that the industry is not just a creative one, but a technological one too; students need access to 3D softwares and CAD systems which may come at costly investment, but they so rightly deserve the best in education given the prices they’re now paying in tuition fees. The London College of Fashion has recently opened a Digital Anthropology Lab, giving students access to 3D and body scanning technology, whilst Central Saint Martins and Parsons School of Design offer courses in 3D printing. The University of Huddersfield has made recent investments in 3D, too. But whilst a technological education is an important one, the traditional skills must not be forgotten either – our students must still be educated in the long-established processes and artistry on which this industry has been so solidly built.

So when is this all going to happen?

3D has firmly arrived in the fashion industry, where early adopters are already reaping its benefits, but the reality is that it’s still very much in its infancy, and industry insiders are keen to keep backing the benefits of 2D working – providing it’s used with efficiency as discussed in my previous article.

In thinking and writing about 3D, the tendency is to get very carried away with its potential and how it can completely revolutionise our way of working, but as I discussed earlier, its implementation requires a seismic shift in the whole mindset of the industry. There’s still a long way to go, and thankfully there’s still plenty of time to learn.

The role of the designer of tomorrow is very much a contemporary one, as they partner creativity with technological understanding and are positioned at the very forefront of bringing 3D into wider working practice. I’m looking forward to taking opportunities to engage and work with 3D in the near future, and I’m excited about working as a designer who can utilise a whole new dimension for product innovation.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.