In today’s guest post, Embodee examines the current role of digitization in the footwear and apparel industry – paying close attention to 3D technology. The company’s writer and editor, Michael Bales, explores the integral role of interoperability going forward.
The fashion industry’s adoption of digital and 3D technology is a hot topic. After all, despite the pandemic otherwise ravaging the industry, surging online sales have lessened the financial pain for companies that invested heavily in digital and committed early to an omnichannel focus. Those using 3D design and virtual sampling, among other advancements, have been better equipped to deal with disrupted supply chains, curtailed travel, and work-from-home requirements.
While the economic travails of COVID-19 have reduced technology capital expenditures, such spending will rebound as the virus is suppressed and the world economy regains its vigor. The march of digitization that had been remaking the industry for years won’t stop but strengthen, in part because of lessons learned from the pandemic. Any remaining resistance is, well, futile.
With the industry working to recover, now is a good time to take stock of some of the advancements driving the transformation. As with other waves of technology-driven innovations, progress arrives with an asterisk. That is, when the innovations disrupt traditional processes, deliver new efficiencies, and even evoke marvel, they don’t achieve perfection out of the gate. Creating better ways of doing things often creates unexpected challenges — and opportunities. Call it the ripple effect.
No matter the industry affected, one overarching challenge is common as information technology evolves: interoperability or lack thereof. (We prefer a different word, but more on that later.) For a simple example, think of the old days when Microsoft Word worked on PCs but not Macs. The solutions needed now to make key innovations in the fashion industry work better and for larger constituencies are more complex.
Consider, for example, 3D authoring tools, which represent a watershed development essential to the digitization of the industry. Using these tools, mostly made by prestigious companies, 3D artists create virtual versions of apparel and footwear that when rendered take on a multi-faceted life of their own. Long before virtual products are birthed as cut and sewn products in the physical world, they can be easily altered into full product lines and assortments with different colorways and other variants. Final high-resolution, interactive versions can be published on e-commerce sites before they’re even sent to manufacturers. No photographs or physical samples needed.
These revolutionary tools work extremely well. So what’s the asterisk? Actually, there are several. Chief among them is the proprietary nature of their 3D image files, typically accessible only when using the company software with which they were created. Let’s say you’re a large brand that sources 3D product designs from companies or freelancers that use authoring tools made by three different firms. To view the designs in 3D, complete with interactive elements such as rotation, you must buy software licenses from all three companies. And even then, only a limited number of the brand’s employees are authorized to use the software because of licensing restrictions.
In addition, when the digital asset files are imported into PLM systems, they’re typically not viewable as fully rendered 3D products but rather 2D representations, line art, or hand drawings. This means that a company’s PLM is visually constrained. If someone wants to see the products in development for a new line, as they would look online or displayed in a brick-and-mortar store, they likely can’t. Why? Again, they would need access via the 3D authoring license.
In some cases, when a company wants to see a particular 3D product, they must go back to the artist who designed it – if the artist is available – to create a version visible in the PLM. This is also true if they merely want to change a garment’s color. 3D artists, in short supply because of their expertise and demand for their services, become unwitting bottlenecks. Some but not all authoring tool makers offer, at an extra cost, plugins that overcome some of these problems.
Another hurdle is that 3D assets from different companies’ authoring tools don’t render precisely the same. For example, the drape, lighting, and material aren’t presented identically. So, as in the example of a brand using designs created via authoring tools from three different vendors, it must choose one in which to replicate the final designs.
These problems could be likened to someone having to send an email from one phone, browse the web on another, and text via a third line. The technology that enables all three functions is empowering, but the lack of integration poses complications that need further innovation to overcome.
Large brands aren’t the only businesses encountering challenges. Small- and medium-sized businesses that can’t afford a full-featured PLM system face their own challenges. While they might use only one 3D authoring tool, the output of product design files is stored, for example, in files and folders in Dropbox or Google Drive that are time-consuming to sift through, organize, and share.
What these companies lack is a dashboard that organizes and makes assets easy to navigate and view in a single place. They need to have pattern files, color swatches, and more in a centralized location and just a click away.
An effective way to enhance the innovations that have vastly improved how the fashion industry works is to introduce a cloud-based platform for working with 3D assets, created using the various client-based authoring tools. Such a platform, working with or without a PLM, would make these virtual product designs viewable online without buying multiple software licenses. In the cloud, they could be refined by an array of staff without 3D design skills. They could easily apply color changes, variances, and other tweaks, as well as create assortments, in one place. This would eliminate the unintended bottleneck of depending on 3D artists.
Cloud-based also means anyone across an enterprise could see rendered visualizations of 3D products in a consistent way and with all interactive features. Anyone the company chooses could be invited to collaborate, review, and comment on designs, as well as vendors, wholesalers, factories, and focus groups.
A shift to the cloud would solve the interoperability problem. It would mean, in essence, that 3D assets would be democratized. In other words, set free.