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A Platform for Materials


In this third article, Thomas Teger, CPO of swatchbook, inc takes a closer look at how materials can and should become an integral part of the digital product development process, rather than being an afterthought.

In our last two pieces for WhichPLM we laid out the 3D digital landscape for designers, and how disconnected this important group of people is from the overall digital development process. While design seems to be “everything” these days, no matter what the product is, it is time to introduce some new ideas on what can be done.

As we’ve discovered in last month’s article, materials are almost always an afterthought. And even if they are not, they certainly are an add-on and unique to the application in use. There is no single source of truth that feeds all applications, but each application rather has its own interpretation of materials. This results in inconsistencies from a visualization standpoint, and it certainly is a nightmare from a management standpoint. And, guess what, that’s why materials don’t even get managed from a visual standpoint. It is all about engineering, manufacturing and sourcing. Not that this is wrong, but it leaves out such an important aspect of material characteristics – looks and behaviors – because materials are part of the application, not part of the process. Yet materials are everything! They determine the look and feel and overall quality of a product; they are the difference between “cheap” and “expensive”, between “love” and “like”.

Materials at the center – a single source of truth

The idea of putting materials at the center really means one thing: make them an integral part of the product development process! So, rather than having different sources of materials tied to an application where the material is part of that application, why not have a single source of truth that gives access to everyone in the process, including designers and marketers – something that many PLM and CAD vendors still don’t seem to understand, as we’ve discovered – and allows people to just use the piece of information they actually need for their task at hand.

This certainly sounds like wishful thinking, in particular in the absence of any kind of material standards. However, there is a lot that can be done, as long as you bring the right people and minds together.

Treating materials as first class citizens

Once you’ve managed to decouple materials from the applications so they are no longer something buried in the UI and treat them as first-class citizens, let’s step back for a moment and think how else we could approach materials.

The first thing that comes to mind is PLM. As discovered in our last article, while the value is tremendous, it is only something that mechanical engineers, manufacturing engineers, project managers and others – do I dare say geeks? – will end up using. But we are looking at design!

There are standalone databases that can be integrated with CAD and PLM, but there are not really standalone applications that will allow easy access to material information. Plus, the information is solely technical, and not at all visual. Take GrantaDesign for example: an incredible source of material information, that sadly has nothing to do with “design” as their name suggests.

There are also a number of online databases available, for various industries. They all cater to different audiences. For CGI, a great resource is Substance Share by Allegorithmic. Beautiful textures created by artists for artists, but only capturing the visual aspect.

The fashion industry also recognized this problem. Several startups have sprung up over the years to offer access to materials in digital form. The problem once again is that these services solve only one piece of the puzzle, and don’t address the problem at a greater scale as to where they provide more than just a photo and technical data of the material.

The user experience

Because it always seems to be an afterthought let’s make sure we don’t overlook it: the user experience. Often ignored by PLM and, if not, then companies being seemingly paralyzed to change anything, the user experience is the key to get creative people in the digital process to use your product.

And don’t stop at the desktop. Or the browser. Everybody has a smartphone these days. The iPhone just turned 11. And what are you doing with it professionally other than answering e-mails, texts, chats and making occasional phone calls? Of course, different platforms have different form factors and therefore require dedicated design of the app to expose the features that make most sense and therefore the experience most valuable on any given device. Trying to fit a square peg into a round hole won’t work.

All the material information, searchable

When you look at all of these online resources, they do a great job of solving a particular task for a particular person or group of people in the process. But they don’t tie into the process.

In order to cater to all people in the process, the first step is to bring all the information together into the same environment:

  • Visualization – an accurate visual representation of the material, color, color variations
  • Technical data – all the meta-data that goes with the material, from pricing to who the supplier is, to country of origin, composition etc.
  • Simulation – the way the material behaves under stress, impact etc.
  • User data – anything else that might be relevant to further describe the material, projects it was used on and more.

In the end it can literally be any kind of data that you think might be important. As long as you can add it to the material description, great. Because at the end of the day, it is all just data, and other than the visualization data that can be heavy at times, text is easy to store.

It is important that you find things quickly, whether searching your own in-house library, or materials provided by third parties. And these searches can be rather fuzzy, in particular when designers are performing a search versus engineers. Just providing data buckets isn’t enough. The system will not only have to posses a sophisticated tagging system, but also provide a rock solid filtering system that adheres to industry standards. And, it needs to be highly flexible and customizable.

Confidence in your digital content

The information is only as good as you provide it. Let’s take a look at visual representation, which is probably the most important aspect of the product. While a thumbnail – an image taken with a camera for example – is a great start, and certainly more what most PLM systems are providing today, it is not enough. In order to make a decision, get a feeling, and emotionally connect you will need more than that. How do you determine size, texture, sheen, composition, behavior from a single thumbnail image?

In the fashion world I’ve seen the size concern being solved by taking a picture of fabric with a measuring tape next to it. It is hard to believe that this is how things are done in 2018 out of pure desperation, almost 50 years after the first man stepped onto the moon.

Devices that allow you to capture materials far beyond a simple photo like Vizoo’s xTex and X-Rite’s TAC7 scanners do a great job of capturing the material, going far beyond a photo. In xTex’s case, while the scans are of great quality and detail, all you have are the scans. That in itself can be enough, because you get the exact scale of the fabric, yet it is not always enough. xTex gives you 6 texture maps. What are you going to do with them? Certainly you can use them in your rendering application, but remember we are talking about creating a material platform here.

So just capturing the information is not enough. In order to be able to make decisions on digital representations of materials, you need to have ways of putting a truly accurate digital representation together. It is a fundamental ingredient to creating a next generation platform for materials.

From 2D to 3D

Of course if you are a CG artist or experienced using a rendering application – some applications like KeyShot require less expertise than others while delivering great results – then you have no problem to visualize the materials in 3D to get a real feel for what a material looks like on an object, how it behaves under different lighting conditions, and more.

Depending on the industry however, creative people may not have access to these 3D applications, or they may not have the expertise on how to operate them. In particular in the fashion industry, designers seem to be stuck, at least for the most part, in the 2D world, using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.

Unlocking the door to 3D in a simple, intuitive way – preferably on any device – will dramatically shift how people deal with digital materials. Assuming the proper quality of the materials is given, people will be able to visualize materials in context, and get a true understanding of scale, and looks of the material on a 3D object. Ideally instantly. On any device, wherever they are.

How accurate does it have to be? The color discussion.

While accuracy is important, and the more accurate the material is in the shortest amount of time the better, in the end it is always a question of “what is good enough?” Is what I’m seeing suspending disbelief? Does the material on that shirt look like a plaid 100% cotton material? Does the lighting give me a good idea of what my material will look like in the store, outside in bright sunlight, or at night? Of course, if you are creating the marketing shot for your ad, website, brochure, then you want it to be as accurate as you can get it. Like a photo. But what does that even mean? Have you ever seen a photographer work?

But if you are in a design review, chances are that 80% is about “good enough” for what you’re trying to convey and on what you are trying to decide.

There is, however, a constant discussion about “color”. How many times have we heard “the color isn’t accurate”? Color is one of the most complex topics out of all of them when it comes to digital representation. The short answer is that as long as you are not evaluating physical materials under neutral lighting conditions and are comparing them to a digital representation under the same neutral lighting conditions, on calibrated monitors, in neutral, non-intrusive lighting, then the discussion about color accuracy is mute. It is more important to accurately capture the color information – good scanners or dedicated measuring devices can do this – and save that information with the material, using a standard color space. Consistency over accuracy.

Developing new materials

The idea of a central material platform can be taken a step further when taking into consideration how to create brand-new materials from scratch. Of course, CG artists can do this in their visualization application all day long, but what about designers that are living in the 2D Illustrator world?

Being able to capture or upload an image or pattern, describe a material in simple terms through tags, and attaching it to a 3D object to explore right from the beginning what this new material may look like and how it will behave while seeing it in real time, at the correct size, with the proper type, will fundamentally change how new materials and material ideas will be developed.

Because, again, rather than sketching it, writing it down in a spreadsheet, and then sharing this information via e-mail with your team or supplier is just an endless source of frustration.

If developed correctly with the uniqueness of individual platforms in mind, you would be able to use any device – desktop or mobile – to capture ideas and turn them into material proposals. Combine this with some of these new mobile color capturing devices, and you can even grab the right color and attach it to your material right then and there.

From the beginning the information is being held in a central place. It might never go anywhere. But if and when it does it is already where it needs to be, ready to be accessed by anyone in the process who needs to be involved in the development of new materials.


When moving to an ‘all digital’ platform, materials, now that we established them as first class citizens as part of the digital product development process, need the ability to be shared throughout the process, in particular allowing for people to get the information they need for the application they are using.

One of the things that often gets overlooked is the tie in with the physical samples of the materials. While this is an easier task – potentially – in the world of discretely manufactured products such as cars, cell phones, toys etc., you still want to make sure that there is a connection between your physical and digital samples.

Whenever your team is in a design review, the last thing you want to do is create a spreadsheet and enter all the materials you just decided on. Being able to collect them digitally, share them with other stakeholders in the process, and link them to the physical samples from your library are essential so that none of the information gets lost.

Of course, on the digital side of things you want to make sure that people are able to use these collections in their application of choices. Again, the idea here is to manage a single source of materials as a source of truth that feeds into all applications, ideally in their native format.

And of course it has to tie back in with PLM

Because if it doesn’t, what is the point? Information between a material system and PLM system has to flow both ways, so that the relevant information is always present and up to date for all stakeholders in the process. Things might get a little more complex if companies throw a DAM into the mix – a digital asset management tool. But no matter what, any newly developed solution has to be able to become an integral part of the workflow, rather than a point solution. This will, in the end, only lead to a dead end.

The dream continues – what about standards?

Life would be so much easier if there were material standards. Of course, looking at visualization, even with a standard material description that can be read by every rendering engine and visualization application out there, the results will be different. However, a standard exchange format would eliminate the challenge of converting and managing individual material libraries on a per application basis, depending on what visualization applications design, engineering and marketing are using. Entertainment has done it . MDL is a good start, however it only covers visualization and is not open source, but rather driven by Nvidia.

Simulation, as in capturing a materials behavior, is another challenge. In particular in fashion, there are 3 commercial solutions out there – Clo, VStitcher, and Optitex – and they don’t talk to each other, and are completely different. There are some standards out there that are developed by academia, yet these are not commercially available.

We’ll talk about more about standards in our next piece for WhichPLM. All I can say is that there is a lot of work to do for materials …but the future is bright.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for eight 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 our PLM Project Pack, or our Annual Publications, 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.