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Excite 2014 – The WhichPLM Report

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Excite 2014 header

In this exclusive article, our Editor reports on the announcements, technology demonstrations, and customer testimonials from last week’s Excite show in Munich, courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.

On 15th and 16th May, manufacturers, brands, and analysts alike descended on Munich’s former Olympic park to be shown what organisers RTT and Dassault Systèmes dubbed “the visual revolution”.

Our readers will know Dassault Systèmes (hereafter “Dassault” for brevity’s sake, although it’s important to remember that the company holds a name in its own right, having been spun off from Dassault Aviation some time ago) for their ENOVIA PLM solution, and perhaps for their FashionLab initiative and long-running collaboration with haute-couture designer Julien Fournié.  Recently, Dassault has branded itself “The 3D experience company”, which goes some way to laying the groundwork for its acquisition of co-hosts and three-dimensional visualisation experts RTT.

Excite 2014 - crowd wide

That acquisition was formalised at the start of this year, but RTT Excite was chosen as the venue to add some real weight to the announcement, and to reveal RTT’s rebranding as “3DXcite”.

That may sound like something of a glib name, but I have reason to believe it’s every bit as shrewd, considered, and accomplished as was the rest of the display that the joint companies put on over a hectic two-day period.

Not to put too fine a point on it: Excite 2014 put forward a number of cogent messages, but the pulse remained consistent throughout keynote speeches, press demonstrations, interviews, and customer case studies: whatever your industry – automotive, aerospace, consumer goods, fashion – it’s time you got excited about 3D.

I need to preface what comes next with a confession.  I’ve been something of a 3D sceptic, at least insofar as it applies to the apparel industry.  Someone much wiser than I once said “it isn’t fashion until somebody wears it”, and this really  my feelings about three-dimensional working.  I understood the value of 3D; I’d even seen some suggested applications.  But when it came to the promise that the dimensional shift would revolutionise product development, all I could really see was promise and a paucity of actual products.

Excite 2014 - Dassault play button

Stepping into the event space and lecture halls that played host to this year’s Excite event, however, demonstrated that Dassault are taking this disparity extremely seriously.  The two-day agenda was packed with not just plausible use cases, but hands-on demonstrations, unfettered access to the systems behind the visuals, and testimonials from prestigious brands who are actually using the products today.

Although the testimonials themselves provided the cleanest insight into exactly how leading brands and manufacturers are using 3D, the first day’s opening keynote served as the most compelling entry point for Dassault’s new vision.

Introduced by big basslines and bombastic synths, RTT (now 3DXcite) CEO Roberto Schettler took to the stage amidst spectacular rendered footage of cars, shoes, smartphones and more – all practically indistinguishable from their physical counterparts.  In what was to become one of the hallmarks of the event, the remarkable similarity between real-world products and their immaculately rendered counterparts was hinted at here, but never explicitly emphasised.

Excite 2014 - car collage

Schettler himself had reason to be excited, and it showed.  A bold and energetic man already, his opening address was no doubt buoyed by his company’s new role within Dassault, and it was with real enthusiasm that he took delegates through the history of RTT.

As Schettler put it, his company has a simple aim: to deliver the ultimate in 3D design for industrial applications.  For him, the value in three-dimensional working is clear, since it allows his clients to deliver stunning visual results that enable value above and beyond their physical equivalents – often reaching places that traditional methods simply cannot reach.

Excite 2014 - Roberto Schettler

Schettler was also justifiably proud of his company’s growth and experience, and presented examples of successful projects for Audi (a web configurator, based on more than 70,000 4K resolution assets created for the company), Nissan Dongfeng (augment reality), and Lamborghini, whose iOS application allowing customers to place their dream car in any photograph touched on marketing, sales, and the hot topic of “gamification”.

Throughout his address, Schettler was candid about the particular mix that had helped to carry RTT from its inception to this year’s acquisition.  RTT was founded in 1999 at the vanguard of 3D, and today employs around 770 staff with primary offices in Munich, and in Detroit, USA.  RTT has demonstrated its expertise primarily in the automotive market, but the company has also worked in our industry, producing content for Adidas, Beats Audio, Deckers, Hugo Boss, Sketchers and North Face.  Its success, for Schettler, was down to a combination of the right people and the right creativity, coupled with a relentless focus on discovering new processes and new frameworks to challenge the status quo.

Finally, Schettler touched on the ways in which his solutions can draw CAD data from Dassault’s Systèmes’ CATIA solution (amongst others) as well as introducing a promised integration to the vendor’s ENOVIA PLM solution before handing the stage over to Monica Menghini, EVP of Corporate Strategy, Industry and Marketing for Dassault.

Menghini took something of a different approach.  Rather than focusing immediately on the value of 3D visualisation, she instead described the market conditions that have given rise to Dassault’s decision to focus on what she called “marketing in the age of experience”.

Excite 2014 - Monica Menghini

As Menghini explained, Dassault Systèmes is a scientific, passionate company – and one driven by family values.  Once the company was spun off from Dassault Aviation, it began to track the trend it saw from 3D design, to 3D digital mock ups, to 3D PLM, and now to 3D experiences.

But what, exactly, makes an experience?  And how is it distinct from a product, a system, or a process?

To begin to answer this question, Menghini went into further detail about Dassault Systèmes’ history.  The ENOVIA acquisition, she explained, brought to the business a portfolio of lifestyle and consumer goods clients (each with a very different ethos and different priorities to the industrial clients the company was used to), and with them came a new way of thinking – one galvanised by Dassault’s desire to apply its strengths to the entire product lifecycle.

For Menghini, the concept of “experience” is tied inextricably to that desire, since she (and her company as a whole) believe that the world has entered a fourth-stage economy, beyond industry, beyond service.  An economy driven by experience.

As Dassault sees it, today shoppers of every stripe are looking for something more than just a product.  Something ineffable, but defined at least in part by an emotional or aesthetic experience.

Excite 2014 - touchscreen shoes

By way of example, Menghini pointed to Nespresso: the leaders in coffee not because their version of the commodity (coffee itself) is necessarily the best, but because the product is so closely coupled to the lifestyle.  In their case, the company began with an experience in mind and worked backwards, creating concept stores, private membership programmes and more.  Similarly, everyone’s favourite touchstone when it comes to explaining the consumer experience, Apple, did not invent the smartphone – they rather crafted an experience and a lifestyle, and created the product to service it.

So, Menghini said, whether they realise it or not, every industry has become part of the experience economy, and businesses that sell product or service alone are depriving themselves of a host of opportunities that have been enabled by the modern world.

In our case, this concept is less alien that it might be to other industries.  Fashion has always traded on the concept of desirability – the idea that a product can be a window into something deeper.  But the question, at least for me, did remain as to how 3D working can serve that goal.

Excite 2014 - PLM cycle

Luckily, Menghini appeared to be a step ahead.  As she explained, the value in three-dimensional visualisation lies in the creation of a single asset or core PLM object, couched in the most common language of all, that can carry that inspiration, lifestyle and experience from production inception to the point of sale.  By leveraging detailed and believable 3D visualisations of products, Menghini said, brands and manufacturers can create social communities across their supply chains: a new way of visualising their businesses to complement a new way of visualising their products.  Visibility has always been one of the core tenets of PLM, after all, but it can be easy to focus on what you want to see, rather than how you might want to see it, and the impact that decision might have on other stages of your product lifecycle.

As Schettler put it in a later press briefing, “[with three-dimensional core assets] you do away with the need to build physical mockups at an early stage, and you earn the ability to conduct pre-market testing and preliminary marketing activities before the product even exists”.

Much of what Menghini touched upon was centered on the concept of expanding PLM’s scope, undertaking a single element of work to create multi-use assets that can enrich the various stages of the product lifecycle and be integrated seamlessly between applications.

Excite 2014 - Man using iPad

And while the customer testimonials and academic talks that followed hers and Schettler’s presentations were clearer about whether or not a 3D model could now be considered a core PLM asset, the joint forces of Dassault and RTT are clear about the legacy they wish to pursue.  For the new 3DXcite, the marriage of Stellar and cloud-based rendering, automated content production, and materials management represents the best possible path to a 3D experience.

Of those customer testimonials, only three were directly applicable to the retail, footwear, apparel and accessories industries (VANS, Coach, and Cornell University), but I would be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to a presentation by Daniel Simon entitled “The Timeless Racer”.  Simon is a 3D artist dedicate to populating fantasy lifestyles with believable, desirable products – and while his work is focused on the creation of futuristic (or indeed retro-futuristic) vehicles for Hollywood movies, there is much in what he does that is more broadly applicable to any industry, ours included.  As Simon explained, the key to creating a believable lifestyle and experience is to fill it with inspiration, and empowered by technology, this is something that a single artist or designer is able to achieve today irrespective of where their final results will be aired – on the big screen or in a catalogue.

Excite 2014 - Daniel Simon

More pertinent to our readers, though, was a short talk by Tinnie Choi, who works in Innovation and Advanced projects for skating shoe brand VANS.  Hers is a business with an extremely potent identity, and one that you perhaps might not expect to have embraced enterprise-level systems.  But embrace them they have, and Choi walked the audience through the way that product development, sampling and production had typically been done at VANS, before contrasting this with the way 3D technology has allowed them to change.

Excite 2014 - Tinnie Choi

Like most brands, VANS produce a large collection but with several mainstay styles, experimenting with materials and colourways to create a kind of familiar diversity.  Until recently, Choi explained, each shoe would undergo 3 -4 rounds of sampling before entering production, with an average sample turnaround time of 2-3 weeks each.  This created an atmosphere of what she called “delayed gratification”, as well as creating a significant amount of waste, since half-pairs were retained by their supply chain partners (the other half being sent to head office) before eventually being disposed of.

Using RTT’s solutions (including DeltaGEN), the company now reverse-engineers their samples digitally using a scanner (capturing structure, colour and texture), before creating three-dimensional models of their most popular styles using the 3D package Maya, or even via 3D printing.  Those models are then textured using materials that have been scanned in at 600DPI, and finally have normal and specular maps applied.

Excite 2014 - VANS shoes

If all of that sounds rather technical, the results are anything but.  In the examples Choi showed on stage, it was close to impossible to tell the 3D rendered model apart from its physical equivalent.  As a result, it’s now possible for VANS to recreate product photo shoots without cameras or physical products, and to customise the assets as they go.  And the company soon foresees replacing catalogue spreads entirely with digital models, as well as using them to cut costs in sampling, and to help communicate product inspiration across their supply chain.

Finally, Choi listed what she saw as the major tangible benefits of 3D working, including:

  • Faster time to market
  • Better informed decision making
  • The creation of a more interactive and reactive review process

And while Choi herself may have been one of the event’s more subdued presenters, the case she made for 3D working was loud and clear.

Excite 2014 - Dwayn Catto

An engaging presentation from Coach’s Dwayn Catto, titled “A journey in 3D technology” approached the topic from a slightly different angle, looking at the challenges the famous accessory brand faced in its adoption of 3D working, and how it surmounted them.

As Catto explained, 3D working is a perfect fit for the luxury industry: both trade on exacting detail and an eye for quality, and both share the goal of remaining relevant in the face of fast fashion.  Coach, he said, seeks to produce modern, affordable luxury products, and the company as a whole took the decision that investing in technology was the right way to achieve its ends.

Their path wasn’t without its hurdles, though, and Catto was nothing if not garrulous about the company’s early experiences with 3D technology.  Initially, he said, the company lacked the skills in-house to undertake 3D modelling, making it expensive and time consuming.  And since Coach initially turned to 3D as a cost saving measure, the idea of having to hire in external specialists was an unattractive one.

Excite 2014 - headtracking

Luckily, working with RTT has enable Coach to overcome those teething problems, and to develop a workflow that allows them to turn 2D digital patterns into 3D silhouettes quickly and easily.  The results can then be used for a host of different purposes – from initial merchandise planning to sales and marketing – and to help the company make approval decisions prior to the production of physical samples.

Catto also touched on the consumer-facing aspect of 3D visualisation, explaining that his eventual goal is to engage shoppers with digital storefront displays that can present an entire assortment (in a virtually unlimited array of colourways) instead of constraining their choices according to shelf space in the store.

Catto was a relaxed and persuasive speaker, and footwear and handbags are certainly two of the most logical targets for 3D rendering beyond the obvious applications in the automotive, aerospace and consumer products industries.  Their constituent materials are relatively rigid, and the final products lend themselves extremely well to customisation.

The same can’t be said about apparel, though; different fabrics have different weights and drape characteristics, and simulating the behaviour and characteristics of lightweight materials in motion can become a gargantuan processing task.

Excite 2014 - Cornell

Luckily, Dassault had arranged for Kavita Bala, a professor at Cornell University, to speak about the difficulties inherent in simulating soft materials, and the steps her research students have taken towards making digital recreations of complex materials time and cost-effective.  Although much of their work is too processing or storage-intensive to be practical, as Bala explained, off-site materials scanning (X-ray computed tomography) is approaching a price point whereby micron-level materials simulation will become a compelling prospect.

And once the ability to simulate material properties like reflectivity, weight, behaviour and other optical properties becomes cost-effective, the clear benefits to the footwear and accessories industries should become immediately applicable to apparel.

For now, the central goal of creating a core 3D asset for use across inspiration, sampling, merchandising and marketing certainly has potential for the apparel industry, while the results for footwear and accessories are already indistinguishable from physical products, and the benefits both immediate and obvious.

Excite 2014 - Schettler demo

All of which led me to the conclusion, as I departed Munich at the close of the second day, that perhaps, where 3D working is concerned, I’ve been thinking about it all wrong.  In my opening I explained that I was waiting for concrete applications rather than experiences, but as Excite 2014 demonstrated, the two are actually one and the same.

And if Dassault Systèmes can make converts out of Coach, VANS, Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Saatchi & Saatchi and more, and turn this sceptic into a believer, then  even the most strident doubter would have to accept that “marketing in the age of experience” is working.

Ben Hanson Ben Hanson is one of WhichPLM’s top contributors. Ben has worked for magazines, newspapers, local government agencies, multi-million pound conservation projects, museums and creative publications before his eventual migration to the Retail, Footwear and Apparel industry.Having previously served as WhichPLM’s Editor, Ben knows the WhichPLM style, and has been responsible for many of our on-the-ground reports and interviews over the last few years. With a background in literature, marketing and communications, Ben has more than a decade’s worth of experience, and is now viewed as one of the industry’s best-known writers.