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In Between Fashion Battles with Technology, 3D is not the Enemy

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In her first featured article with us, Dr Evridiki Papahristou explores 3D working in our industry. 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.

During my academic years operating in European Fashion & Product Development departments, digital prototyping was science-fiction. The development of a fashion collection was done with the traditional tools of a newborn fashion designer: pencil, paper, watercolours and Pantone marker-pens (I still have them in my archive – the fortune spent paid off!).

The Adobe Creative Suite was at a very early stage of adaptation for fashion illustrations. The only digital tool that existed (and is still considered fundamental) was CAD (Computer Aided Design) at that time for pattern design & marker making.

Back then skilled-labour was highly dependent upon hands on expertise for apparel design and, to a large extent, the use of digital automation and software program application wasn’t encouraged. By the 1990s software for use in the RFA (Retail, Footwear & Apparel) industry had become increasingly sophisticated. CAD was initially developed as an interactive computer design system for the textile industry, then introduced into apparel for pattern making, grading, marker making and has been constantly developed over the years to support a broad array of fashion and clothing design processes. Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) was initially developed as a way of ensuring that the transition from 2D design process to 3D manufacture was more seamless, and also to enable companies to benefit from lean processing. Just as CAD enables design businesses to participate within a global field, so does the ability to integrate CAM, which enables companies to test physical prototypes and streamline production processes.

My first acquaintance with 3D visualisation and clothing simulation was in 2001 with Browzwear’s V-Stitcher software solution. As an expert and a trainer of 2D digital pattern development systems, I was completely overwhelmed with the possibilities & opportunities that 3D can offer a clothing company’s product development teams, and for the whole fashion industry as a whole. 15 years ago, I remember trying to articulate how to work with 3D and, at the same time, developing and delivering presentations on the use of 3D to clients who were experienced CAD users in 2D. It was very challenging back then as the fashion industry was (and still is) not well known for its positive relationship with neither experiments nor journeys to the unknown. The process to create physical garments and produce them has been, for hundreds of years, purely manual. Everyone involved in product development knows how the process itself is so time-consuming, costly and dependent on the designers’ and pattern makers’ skills and experience. In order to confirm the design and achieve a satisfactory fit, a number of repeated cycles of sample preparation, trial fitting and pattern alteration must be conducted. Undeniably, making numerous sketches, pattern drafts, alterations and multiple samples are costly and time consuming.

Around the millennium 3D visualisation technology affected many industries like automotive, aerospace, architecture and industrial design. The early 3D tools for apparel garments saw an opportunity to enter the RFA sector and in the early part of the millennium the teams from Browzwear and Optitex entered the market. The clothing sector was under tremendous pressure to deliver faster fashion more efficiently and it was this need that gave the RFA industry a huge push toward adopting 3D. The marketing teams provided a very big pull factor to enhance 3D for Apparel, and the solution providers continued to educate users on ROI (Return On Investment), helping businesses and people to adopt the new ways of working with 3D. There were quite a few 3D enthusiasts in garment prototyping and early adopters of the technology that were serious on keeping the development of 3D with tangible results beyond just marketing. However, 3D technology and 3D visualisation of virtual sewn pieces of patterns, although very impressive, was difficult to use in the early days, with complicated interfaces and limited functionalities. The challenging characteristics of material drape and the lack of skilled 3D users were just a couple of the obstacles preventing the fashion industry from really embracing 3D during those early years.

The majority of academic research into 3D,has so far been conducted by engineers with little or no experience in developing fashion products. Only the larger tier of corporations with multi-million dollar budgets and large R&D departments could invest in the adaptation and experimentation with this new technology beginning with certain categories and pilot projects.

Embracing Technologies

Today, the RFA textile and clothing industry is a far more mature industry when it comes to embracing new technologies and is trying to revive its’ fortune through the adoption of a broad-range of novel technologies, moving away from it’s traditional mechanical roots. Digital Prototyping, driven by three-dimensional (3D) technology, is considered to be an essential tool in the modern apparel & accessories design process. Its integration to E-PLM (Extended-PLM) will help to speed up the design process, offer new products that improve quality and design techniques and that will be manufactured in a more efficient way, influencing competition between companies. Virtual Prototyping is still in its infancy and has only just started to open up a whole range of new opportunities for apparel designers. However, running into the second decade of the new millennium, is a scenario of an apparel industry with fashion designers who no longer use pencil and paper and who will pass these vectorised designs to the digital pattern maker to digitally sew and evaluate new designs in 3D, its only a matter of time before this optimistic view becomes the new norm for our industry.

The previously described history of 3D technology comes through my personal experience as a CAD systems’ expert as well as an academic lecturing in higher education fashion courses. As a visionary technology believer, I wanted to identify the reasons that prevented 3D in integrating with the already established PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) processes. Through personal interviews, the study of 3D has also sought to identify not only how these new technology solutions are being used in the industry today, or how advancements to the technologies behind them are likely to drive increased adoption and emerging opportunities in the future, but also the cultural changes in the managerial corporate level and their implementation in the product development process and in the academic new course structure that needs to be done, in order to support the implementation of these new technologies and their managerial support.

Fashion is not like any other industry. Fashion is multi-sensory, fashion is about perception, is so much about value, so much about intrinsic value – a very unique industry. You cannot just come from video games or engineering systems and think you can appeal to a savvy fashion customer. Fashion customers are unique; their demands are all different.

The product development process today in the fashion industry is sadly lacking and in the main is very inefficient and far from optimised. Companies are still developing 5-6 prototypes for each approved garment. Each prototype needs to be cut and sewn, then shipped across the globe. I’m sure that you can just imagine the amount of energy, cost and the unnecessary time that this adds to a product’s lifecycle. The advantage of 3D and Extended-PLM technology is to help support and streamline the entire end-to-end process, making the process fast, less costly and delivering higher quality even more efficiently.

Investigating 3D

WhichPLM’s 5th Edition came in my hands at the end of my PhD research. A research study set out to explore the effective integration of Digital Prototype in the product development process of the RFA industry, investigating the level of implementation of new digital technologies, especially 3D visualisation and virtualisation of a garment product comparing the enthusiasm, vision, skepticism, evangelism and restrained optimism between technology providers and vendors, entrepreneurs and independents, professional and experienced users, and academics and researchers of clothing / fashion courses. While I was reading the 5th Edition, my belief that 3D was certainly gathering real momentum was confirmed. Certain parts of my research results were in between the pages. During my research I have found that 3D has more followers and experienced users than I thought.

How could it not?

Today, technology has become a fundamental survival tool for any fashion or apparel company that aims to remain competitive in today’s market and can be a powerful catalyst for change. Although for the most part of the last fifteen to twenty years fashion has pushed back when it comes to adopting new technology, experts expect a radically different landscape in fashion in the not to distant future. It is argued that present-day ready-to-wear technologies will presumably give way to computer-aided custom manufacturing. 3D modeling software allows designers to build, prove and visualise 3D models of clothing prior to being constructed overseas, thus saving a great deal of time, money, energy and effort. At the same time we expect vendors to continue to improve the maturity of their solutions to enable the full potential of 3D. As it was previously mentioned, 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.

The clothing industry, once data-driven and silo-mentality oriented, is moving towards a model-driven approach with three-dimensional offering the best representation of a product’s identity. The changes made in their product development process would depend on the clients’ needs and the main user of 3D in the company. If a company (brand or Original Design Manufacturer [ODM]) would like to use a 3D software solution at the early stages of their product development cycle, designers will substitute 2D sketches for 3D virtual designing. A company’s main focus should be on enhancing a designer’s creativity and making quicker decisions, rather than today’s manual method of design, which greatly limits creativity.

If a company (Original Equipment Manufacturer, or OEM) already has the patterns ready, and would like to use 3D software to check the balance of the garment; he/she would substitute several sample iterations, converting these to 3D virtual samples, to check the balance and errors of the patterns and will be able to simulate the manufacturing make-up. A company’s main focus is on reducing lead times & cost, and improved communication with buyers (also between designers and modelists).

I’ve mentioned above, most fashion companies and employees, along with the academic world, are reluctant to change and invest, feeling “attacked” when it comes to changing their daily life or the tools they work with. However, during recent years there has been a wind of change; a breeze of a transformative RFA industry. The larger corporations, leaders in technology adaptation, involved in 3D virtual prototyping for some time, can today see positive outcomes; a light at the end of the tunnel. Adidas, Nike, Target, Under Armour, Walmart, VF Group, Coach, and many other brands, employ 3D as part of their strategy, trying to put an end-to-end process with 3D and to teach and roll it out to as many users as is feasible (some have more skills than others when it comes to using technology like this, large corporations have natural attrition with people retiring and moving, “new blood” coming-in will be exponential in the use of it).

Technology experts and futurists alike have been educating our industry for the last twenty years on the benefits of 3D prototyping and it’s future integration as part of the Extended-PLM universe, but only a few were as visionary as the software developers themselves.

The potential is clearly huge; whether 3D earns its stripes and becomes part of the mainstream just like PLM has become a must-have solution remains to be seen.

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.