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From 2D to 3D – and why 3D is more than a pretty picture


In this article, Thomas Teger – CPO and Co-founder of swatchbook, inc – takes an in depth look on the transition from 2D to 3D and how 3D can be utilized throughout an organization and the supply chain. The article focuses in part on the fashion industry, but also offers thoughts and ideas for any other industry developing products.

The title of this article is certainly geared toward the fashion industry. I picked this up – in particular the second part – from a session at a recent PI conference. Of course, you designers and engineers of those fancy cell phones and hot new cars are rolling your eyes because you have answered this question over the past 25 years. It is hard to imagine that over 40 years, after the first introduction of 3D computer aided design software (CAD), we are still talking about the transition from 2D to 3D. One would think that the transition is complete by now, and everybody developing any kind of product is using software to create 3D content by now.

Keep in mind that the fashion industry, in many people’s opinions, is stuck in the late 90s when it comes to deployment of 3D technology in general. The question still remains: how can 3D be expanded and repurposed for broader use? Can other people in the digital development process, in particular sales and marketing people, or managers, or even executives use 3D?

Sketching is still king

Of course, almost every design starts with a sketch. Whether you are designing a phone, a car, a house, furniture, shoes, shirts – everything starts with a sketch. (For those interested, you can experience some awesome car sketching here.

Sketching is still the fastest and easiest way to communicate ideas, as it is and continues to be an integral part of the design process. Good designers must be good sketchers. But then what?

The transition to 3D

When talking about “3D” in terms of digital modeling, many industries have been doing this for years. Whether they are doing this before or after – like in the automotive design process – a physical sample is created, the point is that they eventually arrive at a digital model.

In the fashion industry, I believe this is still rarely the case. Transition to 3D means physical samples. Building many one-offs that are being either made in-house, or often being requested from the manufacturer oversees, this process is still at the core of the industry. Sports performance companies, in particular on the footwear side, are a little more advanced than the rest of the fashion industry, but still have a ways to go in the overall process so 3D can be utilized for more than just product development.

A new way of getting to 3D is scanning. “New” in a sense that it now becomes more accessible. With tools like the HP Z3D camera scanning of a 3D object is certainly much easier to achieve. But, I still need a physical model first. And, then what? Certainly, it works for quick visualization and sharing, rather than shipping a physical object around. Yet in order to utilize this digital object in a more meaningful way, I need software and a specialist to bring these scans to a level of quality so it can be utilized through the entire process.

Going beyond product development – how about retail?

In the fashion industry in particular, there is a lot of discussion about 3D. In particular, what the value of 3D really is. “Is it more than a pretty picture?” We hear this often. Or “we are a company that relies on touch and feel”, as an excuse why a company has not yet transitioned into 3D.

What is often overlooked is how 3D can contribute to the bottom line, going far beyond just product development. Too many executives of fashion brands are looking at one and only one problem, and that is retail. Because retail affects the bottom line. In order to fix the retail problem we just need a configurator, and maybe some AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality), right? So companies go out and hire service companies to build just that: a one-off solution. And while this solves one problem for the team, it is not a scalable solution.

What is often misunderstood is the simple fact that configurators, AR and VR experiences are not built without a 3D model. Of course you can hire outside resources to help you with your 3D development, but no matter whether you choose to develop in-house or externally, you have to make sure that 3D becomes an integral part of the product development process in order for it to become a scalable solution.

That is not to say this isn’t done today. But, even if 3D exists, in my opinion it is not as streamlined and optimized as it could or needs to be. Being able to leverage the same data that are being used for design, decision making, and manufacturing, and utilizing it for sales and marketing, may it be simple image creation, or for the creation of a configurator will significantly reduce lead time, time to market, and cost.

What about materials?

Materials are such an important aspect of every product out there. The colors, the texture, the finish, the highlights, the touch and feel – this is all such an integral part of what defines the look and feel of a product. It is the difference between “like” and “love”. People make a decision in 25 nano-seconds, as I once learned from a talk by Richard Seymour. “I like it”, “I want it”, “what is it?” – in that order. It is all happening in 25 nano-seconds in a human being’s brain.

Yet. with such importance on materials, materials are not an integral part of the design process. People dealing with materials in particular are not given easy access to any system that allows them to visualize their material creations in 3D. They have to rely, for the most part, on a specialist to either build the physical sample, or to translate the material into digital form, and then apply it inside a 3D application so they can visualize it. And only once all of these steps are taken, then it will be possible to also see it in AR or VR.

While this is all possible with today’s solutions, it is a long and time consuming process that is not well suited for instant deceasing making. In times where product development cycles are ever shrinking, where management demands better and more products in a shorter amount time, these traditional processes cannot sustain.

3D is about visualization

Of course 3D is ultimately about being input to producing things. But the most common denominator of 3D and its usage throughout the entire organization, and supply chain, is visualization.

Visualization – this means being able to see a 3D object in front of you with the proper materials, details, color combinations, configurations, at various levels of details, at the necessary level of quality depending what the task on hand is.

Here are some areas:

  • Selling an idea during the concept phase
  • Selling a design to an internal or external client
  • Being able to make educated decisions when sourcing a product
  • Communicating designs, colors, materials, and finishes with the manufacturer
  • Technical documentation on how a product functions, is to be serviced, etc.
  • High end product visualization for sales and marketing in print and on web
  • Creation of configurators for e-commerce

There are certainly many more use cases that I can come up with, depending on the industry. But it should serve as general inspiration to understand where 3D and visualization of 3D data can be served.

It needs to be simple

One thing to keep in mind is that while there are many wonderful 3D solutions out there, there are many people that are involved in the development process, including sales and marketing, that don’t have direct access to a 3D solution that fits their needs and skill levels. This is not about replacing the visualization or 3D modeling artist, but rather about being able to leverage the content that these groups of people produce on a much broader scale.

On the other hand, by making the 3D tools simple, these tools help the “non-experts” in their process, and allows them to leverage their content in an unprecedented fashion, if done right.

One thing often overlooked when developing 3D applications is utilizing the compute power of mobile devices. 12 years after the introduction of the iPhone what design tools, and in particular what 3D design tools, are available for the iPhone or iPad? What applications are being used for design other than Instagram, Pinterest, and maybe a few others?

Touch is still key

With all this digital advancement I’m not at all advocating a replacement of “touch and feel”. Until mobile or dedicated haptic devices can provide us with that we will need to still have the physical material sample in your hand to make the final decision. And with this you will still need a physical sample of the product in hand to hold it, feel it, experience it. But what it does, is reduce the dependency on physical samples. Because I don’t need a physical sample for each color variation of a shoe when all that changes is the color.

Even with just generic representations of 3D designs, materials people can get a long way. Giving a platform that allows for 3D artists to share their designs while giving access to all people that are directly or indirectly involved in the design and decision making process will dramatically improve communication, reduce errors, and drastically shorten the overall design and decision making progress.

As I always say, imagine a CEO being able to review the latest design on a mobile device during a bathroom break. Just imagine that boost of additional productivity…

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.