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Process, The Digital Revolution and Material Exchange


In today’s opinion piece, resident Expert Chris Hillyer discusses the changing landscape of 3D design, and the need for material platforms. Chris is the Director of Innovation at DECKERS Brands – who serve as Design & Innovation Partners to the Material Exchange project.

Thoughts about the product creation ecosystem of the soft goods industry.

I’ve been in the industry just shy of two decades, and during that time little has changed regarding the process in which we design, develop and manufacture footwear and apparel.

In the winter of 2000, I graduated from ArtCenter College of Design, studying Industrial Design. My generation of graduates was the first to be introduced to 3D design as part of the curriculum at ArtCenter. Of course, 3D software was nothing new, Boeing had been using CATIA since 1984 and, growing up in Seattle, I had friends whose parents told stories of this magical, new concept of using virtualization to make engineering decisions long before anyone cut a piece of aluminum.

ArtCenter has always placed tremendous emphasis on drawing and hand-modeling skills, for which I’m thankful, but a couple of things had happened for them to begin embracing 3D in the late 1990s. Primarily, the industry had shifted. Up until that point, designers would create a “technical drawing” and hand it off to an engineer to build in a 3D software like ProEngineer or CATIA. At that time, none of the CAD software was particularly pleasant for the creative minds of the designer. The emergence of software like SOLIDWORKS had begun to bridge the gap and provide tools for designers to be creative in the 3D world. The cost of newer platforms like SOLIDWORKS had also become quite reasonable and they ran on conventional desktop computers rather than requiring the previously necessary machines from Silicon Graphics and the like.

My first job out of school was as a footwear designer and I was enthusiastic to see how this digital revolution was unfolding. To my surprise, all of the design work was being done using hand drawings which were copied into Adobe Illustrator to generate “tech packs” for development teams to interpret and communicate to our manufacturing partners. As I quickly discovered, the 3D software at the time was also not optimized for organic shapes like shoes and apparel. I was encouraged to try to make shoes in 3D but I, too, fell into line with the status quo.

Taking another clue from traditional manufacturing, many apparel and footwear companies have taken advantage of the benefits of PLM (or even PDM) systems. As many readers are familiar with the virtues of having their data centralized and the reporting capabilities available to them, the challenge of PLM/PDM in our industry is the input. Let us keep in mind that most PLM/PDM systems were originally conceived to work in parallel with CAD software as a way to store and organize the parts and pieces which made up assemblies. In the softgoods industry, as we haven’t holistically transitioned to 3D design, every line of data to describe a product or material must be entered manually. Another alternative has been to open portals to suppliers and allow them to enter their materials into our systems, which merely shifts the responsibility to another party.

Turning the Tide

Much has changed over the last 5 years in regards to 3D design software. We now have sophisticated platforms for the creation of apparel and footwear with specific tools and functions catering to our needs. There is a clear path within the industry to begin connecting the dots between generating projects in PLM, designing in 3D and communicating directly with factories using 3D assets which provide crystal clear depictions of designs and incorporate accurate pattern direction, material selection and color.

In the wake of this Renaissance one thing has become apparent: the way we interact with materials continues to be stuck in the past. Material suppliers continue to mail out books of fabric swatches hoping that brands will find something that might be selected for the upcoming season. Data is limited to the price sheets accompanying the books and contain merely a fraction of the information required, and streams of e-mails are always present as a brand enquires about availability, color restrictions and MOQs. In the same way that booking hotels was changed forever by Expedia and Travelocity over 20 years ago, the way we interact with materials must evolve.

As it turns out, most suppliers of leather, textiles, synthetics and hardware components typically store their attribute data in Excel spreadsheets. Many of the more progressive suppliers have considered creating their own websites to aid their customers in the sorting and selection process. From the perspective of a brand, having to search multiple websites to compare different articles would be the same as having to visit various hotel websites to find the best option. A centralized database where suppliers can create virtual catalogs and where brands can search for materials based on physical characteristics is critical to the evolution of the digital product creation environment.

This challenge was identified over two years ago by a group of like-minded industry veterans who set out to help build a bridge between material suppliers and the brands we represent. Led by the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA) a company was created called Material Exchange Ventures. Material Exchange is a web-based database of materials which allows for the searching and filtering of thousands of instances to aid designers, developers and materials teams to research, collaborate and become inspired by the options available to them. Materials can be selected, shared with members of your team, physical samples requested and if questions arise, suppliers can be directly contacted to provide insight.

As 3D is becoming more accepted by design teams, 3D scans of the materials can be uploaded along with images to accurately describe what the materials will look like in a virtual environment. Of course, if a material makes the cut and you would like the data to be downloaded or stored in your PLM/PDM system, an integration can be configured to allow the material to automatically populate your platform.

As the digital tools we all employ to enhance communication, productivity and visualization become more powerful, we now need to focus on how these platforms can begin to communicate with each other to provide an end-to-end solution. From 3D design, PLM/PDM and Materials all the way to Sales, Marketing and Insight, the future process we are in the midst of creating will be intertwined. We may be one of the last manufacturing industries to employ these practices but between having access to decades of progress from other industries and the pressure of changing retail environments to motivate us, the way we create product will be vastly different in the very near future.

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.