In the first instalment in a small series for WhichPLM, guest contributors, Nick Wei and Amy Yeung FY explore the beginnings of 3D as a platform – with close emphasis on 3D sampling. Nick has over 25 years experience in CAD/CAM and PLM; Amy has a strong product management background, with a Bachelor of Science in Textile and Fashion.
In the late ‘80s, after I [Amy] graduated from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, apparel manufacturing was still in it’s heyday. My first job was a junior pattern engineer working for a Canadian CAD company. Apparel manufacturing was still a seller’s market and a lucrative business. Having a CAD system in a company’s pattern room was a nice showcase to the buyers, just like driving a Mercedes Benz to pick up your prestige clients from the Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport.
As a result, the CAD industry was also lucrative, with each set of systems and hardware sold for around 100,000 US dollars. During the selling process and software demonstrations, there was little resistance by prospective customers. The owner of the manufacturers was the one who would see the demonstration, and then produce a sizeable cheque.
It was the ‘90s when I saw the first 3D CAD systems in use and everything changed. Stitching up pattern pieces and draping them onto a 3D mannequin sounded like a logical move. Back then, computer graphics were still very ‘primitive’ so you would see the wireframe of the mannequin and the fabric. Resolution was low and the rendering speed was extremely slow, but it was a hit.
The idea was controversial in the industry. All of the leading CAD companies started to develop 3D CAD technology and some visionary customers supported the idea, being profiled in exhibitions and articles. But it was not able to truly take off due to the practicality; the 3D rendering was not realistic, it was slow at processing and, more importantly, it was very difficult to use.
This 3D fire died down rapidly in by the mid-90s, the wave had ended.
All the major CAD developers were focusing on developing total 2D CAD/CAM solutions and still enjoying good profits, while the major brands and manufacturers started to use the internet to transfer CAD files instead of sending hard copy patterns – linking CAD files up to CAM (such as cutting machines, plotters, and spreading machines). This was the main stream of development, and 3D took a backseat.
3D CAD development; a niche market?
In the millennium, while everyone was working hard in solving the Y2K bug, a select pool of CAD businesses had the courage to further develop the 3D market. Optitex, as an example, used the popular Windows platform to develop CAD software, envisioning that the computer hardware was ready for the 3D rendering speed.
These systems looked more realistic, with faster rendering, and more realistic simulation. But, the timing of the launch was challenging. The apparel industry was under a transition mode; China started to open up exporting and manufacturing shifted, the market started to become more competitive, and the industry moved from a seller market to buyer market. Everyone was focusing in the practically of the trade rather then achieving their visions.
The challenge of the pitch
At the turn of the millenium, quick response to the market, and supply change management were key. Manufacturers needed to provide value to buyers, and collaboration between the buyer and the seller was crucial to success. 3D was a solution to reduce lead time, reduce cost and improve communication. Selling the 3D story to a brand and using that brand’s power to sell to manufacturers was the business model for 3D – and it was a rather successful sell.
Realising the benefit?
Challenges, however, were happening at the operational level. 3D rollout was not as easy as you may think. The process was often tricky. A fashion brand, for example, would design a style and send the tech pack to the manufacturer, who would then be responsible for making the sample and sending it back to the brand for approval. The 3D simulation part, logically, became part of the CAD pattern maker’s job.
But, are pattern makers capable of making in 3D? The answer is yes and no. Sure, they are capable of making the 3D simulation of the garment piece, but that’s not all that’s required – you need to attach the correct button, zipper, print, and embroidery onto the virtual garment, not mentioning the fabric material information. These are all aspects not usual for a pattern maker, and they need support: from people who can use 3D Maya or AutoCAD to make a button, a graphic designer who uses AI or Coral draw to develop a print, a textile technician who understands fabric quality to input the weight, thickness and stretch, and shearing factor of the fabric in the CAD software to simulate the piece accurately.
Due to this incorrect approach to adopting 3D, a lot of implementation was considered unsuccessful and customers ended up abandoning the idea and scrapping the entire software investment altogether.
In was in this time where 3D adoption was – as Geoffrey Moore would say in his popular 1991 book, Crossing the Chasm – in the ‘chasm’. The natural adoption cycle, according to Moore, begins with the innovators, then with the early adopters, moving through the early majority and late majority, arriving at the laggards. 3D had halted at the early adopter stage (right before the ‘chasm’), thus not yet reaching the early majority.
In reality, a task force is needed to make the 3D initiative successful. Some 3D CAD developers realise that their clients’ failings in using 3D will lead to a loss of confidence and ultimately a lost sale. They help them to set up the support team, the work flow internally and externally with their vendors. They help them to build a use case and measure their success.
If we look at the success of some early adopters, like Adidas and Nike, their model was 3 fold:
1 – Implement a process not a system
They implemented virtual sampling in the global process and put it as a highlight in their transformation initiative.
Linking up the entire supply chain via 3D is the objective, so all stakeholders talk in the same platform and same language – from the designer, to the illustrator, pattern maker, tech pack developer, to the buyers.
2 – Develop a full-scale support team
There are 6 fundamental elements of making 3D successful, needed to develop the support structure:
- Apparel engineering pattern CAD digital library – Most AAMA DXF formats can be used.
- Fabric physical property – In order to simulate the drape of the fabric onto a virtual avatar, property such as weight, thickness, construction, shearing, and stretch has to be ready and able to store in the library for fabric simulation.
- Avatar – The virtual mannequin is used for making virtual fit samples. It can be done by using a scanned in avatar or commercially available avatar, such as Alvanon.
- Hardware – 3D objects such as buttons, zippers, and buckles are also part of a complete apparel product, therefore such 3D images have to be in the virtual sample. 3D software such as Maya, AutoCAD or Google SketchUp are essential tools for building 3D hardware images.
- Fabrics – Fabric images such as print design, or weaved or knitted textiles also need to be stored for simulation. The ultimate objective is that, when zooming into the 3D simulated apparel, the texture of the fabric can be visualised.
- Colour – Colour standards have to be considered. The Pantone reference, RGB, CMYK or Lab value has to be stored for simulation.
3 – Line up the interest of the buyer, supplier and software developer
It’s important to put the 3D initiative in a company’s agenda across the supply chain, as a medium to communicate. One platform, and one language will improve efficiency across the entire process.
It’s also important to work out expectation in the 3D initiative; although 3D is a language to use for merchandising and design communication, expectation has to be manged. Internal and external teams have to be educated how and where 3D can be used. Everyone has to realise that 3D can’t replace a lot of traditional processes, like real sample making.
3D software development plays an important role in the 3D digital transformation process. User feedback has to be registered and product developed that is usable. Practicality, ease of use, and cost of the technology are also important factors.
After all, it’s all logical: less samples, time and cost saved
It is a proven fact that 3D sampling can reduce your sampling time by half, especially colourway sample, and first sample process, As shown on the diagram above, it can save at least 8 days of time, and make a savings cost of 30%.
Each party involved in the process needs to create and manage expectation, accepting changes, and being part of the transformation.
The entire team is needed to support the 3D implementation in their own domain in order to achieve an unbreakable structure.
And last but not least, key parties need to be involved and to treat 3D as a platform. The designer, technical designer, buyers, factory merchandiser, pattern maker, and range planner need to appreciate and respect the benefit of 3D virtual sampling in order to sustain the measurable benefit of the 3D virtually sampling initiative.