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Fashion & Engineering in Product Development; a Science & Sensibility Affair

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In her second featured article with us, Dr Evridiki Papahristou continues her discussion on 3D working in our industry – this time, in relation to the (often opposed) designer and engineer. 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.

 

We need to merge good technology with specialised skills and resources so that we can keep things going. Those are the things that have driven everything forward…” underlines Christian Harris, 3D Product Specialist at Gerber Technology.

What do the creative mind of a fashion designer, and the analytical brain of an engineer have in common? Most would say, not much. The truth is that the fashion industry kept those two worlds apart for decades. And the sad thing remains that, to a large extent, it still does. Innovation and creativity require bravery, unconventional thinking and curiosity.

The only common language that has opened communication between these two “strangers” is technology. To a fashion designer, an engineer is a “nerd” who only sees numbers and squares to calculate or machines and robots to be fixed. And engineers can be even more prejudiced when it comes to fashion design and styling. They find the fashion industry frivolous and designers and garment developers are not taken seriously. Believe me, these words come from someone whose background was fashion design and product development and succeeded in defending a doctoral thesis as an engineer.

Fashion Designers, who have believed in technology and devoted themselves to becoming more efficient in understanding and using new technology solutions like CAD, PLM and 3D virtual prototyping systems (and more recently AR & VR), are regarded by their “other” colleagues with disbelief. Talking from personal experience, this old-fashioned mentality sticking to the traditional way of designing, developing and bringing new products to market is still a majority. Even though the fashion industry faces, for many years, the globalisation of its market, increasing distance between industrial partners, pressures related to cost, reduced time to market, and proliferation of information, has lagged behind in adopting technology when comparing to other industries.

Only recently has our sector started to show signs of progress. The positive effects of the convergence of design and technology are huge. Not only in theory, but in reality. During my doctoral research in the effective integration of 3D virtual prototype, I visited the headquarters of Adidas in Germany. I couldn’t help but notice the sign outside one of the buildings, reading “Calling all creators”. The big players of the industry, like Adidas, provide certain technologies to the designers with which they can simulate the designed pieces without needing to prototype anything and the engineers can optimise weight, size, price and time to market, exploring the creative middle ground, shared by both designers and engineers. They are calling engineers, computer software developers, 3D animators, fashion and product designers, clothing experts and illustrators trying to become even more innovative in their design and development time than ever before. They are not only thinking outside of the box, they are acting like it. Specifically, a team dedicated to 3D Virtual Technology, enabled by new software, is changing the way products are created.

One thing is obvious. The industry needs an expert with high adoption levels of technology skills and, since the majority of the fashion courses’ curriculum are still tailor-oriented with tape measures, paper/pencils and physical toiles, the companies are reaching out to other discipline areas like those mentioned above. Technical Universities and research in engineering have published many academic papers with applications in the textile and fashion industry. I have studied enough of them only to conclude that most of this research comes from engineers who don’t have the knowledge of garment construction or fitting of clothes, actually. They see the topic from a very scientific point of view and they are missing things. The gap of misunderstanding the scientific approach of engineers and the “sensible”, and at the same time vitally creative foundation of fashion designers, is obvious and has to be bridged.

Multidisciplinary Collaboration at all Stages of the Development Process

Whoever begins to research and investigate in these kinds of technologies needs a team. When it comes to cross-functional teams, this applies to fashion companies just as much as to any other company in the world. This also includes the world of academia. The more collaboration between the teams, the better the products, the better in-touch with marketing the consumer. The products dominated the list of, in the cross functional teams, the business people. It’s not just the designers in that list, it’s the marketers who talk everyday to the consumers who see who those consumers are and what their needs are. If we think of all the knowledge it takes to be a software developer of, let’s say, a 3D solution, and all the information needed to be a very good technical designer of garments, we would detect two different worlds, especially for those developing the software. For starter companies, both engineers and apparel people are needed and they need to understand and respect what each other has to offer. However, fashion and engineering do not mix. An entrepreneur and founder of a fit recommendation platform (during a personal interview) stated that those worlds are so much apart that it’s very rare to find people who are both engineers and understand fashion. This is one of the reasons perhaps fashion is adopting technology so slowly. Fashion sense and mathematical engineering often don’t grow in the same heads. Fashion and engineering is difficult because apparel has been reallocated to a lesser kind of art focus, a soft area that most engineers don’t really believe that there is a knowledge and understanding of a different need.

According to an academic professor with significant work in anthropometry and body shape analysis, they are absolutely wrong. Apparel designers tend to side away from the engineering piece of it where they should be embracing it. “We are in a situation where we need much better communication and collaboration”. She even tries to do that in Cornell University. Addressing this issue, they had the idea to build a national network of Style Engineers through collaborations and developed a programme called Style Engineers, an NSF-funded partnership between Cornell University and the University of Minnesota, which uses hands-on activities to introduce young people, aged 10 to 15, to smart clothing and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through their interest in Fashion.

Multidisciplinary collaboration impacts positively in cost and quality of apparel products:

  • Cost: Working closely with design, the wanted design can be achieved partnering with someone that has 3D capability, making changes on the screen- a major cost saving expanding to time
  • Quality: Partnering with someone in design and someone with strong technical background can also resort in a better construction of the garment or simplify the construction as well.

WhichPLM’s 6th Edition strongly argues that the RFA (Retail, Footwear & Apparel) industry is ready to redefine the products’ lifecycle with IoT applications like sensors, smart devices, E-PLM apps, core PLM software and a multitude of hardware systems ready to interconnect. Undeniably, digital transformation and data is expected to change all workplaces. The Director of Creation Technologies for Adidas, Detlef Müller, states optimistically that, “People with a certain job description today will work differently in the future”. Pretty much every business – even a fashion one late in adaptation – is going to become a digital business to some degree. Even if the designer is not a computer science tech major, he or she will need some exposure to learn how to use and apply technology.

Being different has always affected how fashion works. The growing number of millennials showing a shift in values and a desire for realness and non-conformity is spraying our industry with a scent of rebellion. Once we actually start to work together and get those individuals (engineering minds on both sides, people in technology and people in garment construction) who are willing to understand technical design – garment on a technical level is engineering – then new technology (be it VR, AR, 3D or any IoT app) can become completely reliable. Let’s hope this rebellion will affect the product development process, creating collaborative teams from multi-disciplinary backgrounds. The affair between engineers and fashion creators needs to be a survival one!

Evridiki Papahristou

Dr. Evridiki Papahristou is a devoted fashion engineer with a research focus in the effective integration of 3D virtual prototype in the apparel industry. 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. Working in parallel, as a CAD systems trainer in the industry as well as a lecturer for more than 15 years, she has trained many of today’s executives in digital fashion product development.

Her recent Ph.D is a unique blend of fashion and engineering, trying to explore new ways of implementing and adopting new technologies like 3D and PLM. She loves research and she strongly believes that knowledge should be shared diffusively without restriction.