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KEY POINTS

Fashion industry supply chains are growing faster and stronger with 3D design and sampling technology. In this report, we look at the 3D design process with a focus on its use in the apparel supply chain and profile four major vendors of 3D design software: CLO, Tukatech, Optitex and Browzwear.

  • While consumer interest hops around at a digitalized speed, apparel producers have to move through the entire supply chain before they can meet shoppers’ quickly changing demands. Digitalization is reshaping the apparel market and creating ways for producers to meet consumers’ growing appetite for new trends.
  • 3D virtual design technology enables quality improvements that streamline logistics and provide space for more creativity. 3D rendering also requires less time than traditional rendering techniques, shaving weeks off the design and sampling processes. This results in a fast, cost-effective and more eco-friendly practice.
  • Although fashion buyers have been amenable to 3D-rendered samples, some designers have been resistant to switching from analog to 3D design processes.
  • The spread of 3D virtual design will affect the evolution of the fashion industry and rising demand for customization will lead to growth in on-demand manufacturing.

Introduction: The Time for 3D Is Now

The fashion industry is being revolutionized from the outside in. Consumers’ interests change more quickly than ever before, and producers must follow suit to keep up with demand for new trends and products. For fashion brands, this means shifting from the traditional model of rolling out new styles only four times a year to offering shoppers fresh looks as frequently as every few weeks.

The challenge for the industry is that garment design can be time consuming. It takes more than 22 weeks to produce the average garment, according to industry experts. Designers must sometimes restart work on a design because of miscalculations, and mailing product samples back and forth between manufacturers and brands or retailers adds costly days to the design process. To overcome these hurdles, many companies are digitalizing their supply chains to speed up production lines, and one of the most effective ways to digitalize is to adopt 3D technology for design and sampling. As we show below, this technology can cut a 14-week process down to one week or less.

3D virtual design moves the design process to the digital realm, but enables designers to render the same realistic product look that analog design ensures. By simplifying the design stage, this technology reduces product development time while cutting costs and material waste. Furthermore, 3D virtual design streamlines communication and eases innovation, promoting supply chain efficiencies.

The market for 3D design technology is already developed, with software vendors serving industries such as apparel, home décor, automobiles and hard goods. Top consumer-goods brands are also forging partnerships with vendors to speed up their supply chains. In this report, we look at the 3D design process with a focus on its use in apparel production and profile four significant software vendors: CLO, Tukatech, Optitex and Browzwear.

Fast Fashion Leaves Traditionalists in the Dust

Speed is a key factor in maintaining a competitive edge in the apparel market. Many consumers today want to buy a fashion look when they first see it, rather than wait until a new season rolls around months later and the items finally become available. Speed to market plays a large role in determining a product’s success because shoppers’ interests change so rapidly. According to supply chain experts, boutiques no longer buy their products a full season ahead of time: they place orders later so they can observe and respond quickly to trends, and they bank on fulfillment taking less than three months.

Design, product development and sampling constitute some of the most time-consuming aspects of the apparel production process. Digitalizing these stages can save companies weeks and enable further time savings down the supply chain.

However, the fashion industry is notorious for being slow to modernize. According to fashion technology experts, the last major shift impacting the entire industry was e-commerce. The automobile and video game industries are two among many that implemented 3D design years ago, some as far back as 15 years ago. But the rise of fast fashion has accelerated consumers’ demand for new trends, so fashion brands face greater pressure than ever before to modernize how they bring products to market.

3D Virtual Design

3D virtual design technology creates a streamlined mechanism for adding, saving, sharing and revising design iterations while still allowing designers to realistically portray garments. The software enables designers to manipulate fabric as if they were designing by hand, but with greater precision and flexibility. Materials, prints and patterns are integrated more accurately in the software than in sketches, as the rendering technology provides for precise scaling. The software simulates the way materials fit, accounting for three-dimensional aspects such as tension and draping.

Once a design is created, the designer can vary renditions easily, changing components such as color, pattern and trim with just a few clicks. With the ability to work from template blocks, designers do not need to make the same cuts repeatedly in order to experiment with different features and complicated design features are made simple. The process pictured below illustrates how a designer can add lace pleats to the trim of a nightgown in less than two minutes with 3D-rendering software. This flexibility improves innovative potential and allows for quick updates.

Sampling in the Digital Realm

A major benefit of 3D virtual design is that it enables designers, suppliers, manufacturers, retailers or brands, and sales teams to collaborate by sharing 3D renderings through cloud-based platforms. Beyond that, designers can make style changes based on feedback without needing to produce and ship physical iterations back and forth among agents.

Digital sampling also eliminates the need to produce scores of physical garment iterations for discussions with buyers. Thanks to its high level of sample accuracy, 3D rendering enables buyers to examine virtual samples that are highly realistic. In addition, it allows designers to quickly change colorways digitally instead of having to come back to buyers later with new iterations.

PVH Corp. was ahead of many of its peers in terms of adopting digital sampling when it opened a Tommy Hilfiger digital showroom in Amsterdam in 2015. The company uses this facility to serve its wholesale customers, although it only recently began pursuing 3D virtual design. Customers who visit the digital showroom can use touchscreens to view looks, create their own custom orders and get specific product information. PVH Europe now conducts 80% of its sales digitally, which implies an equal reduction in the number of samples it must produce.

Accurate prototypes are essential for brands selling to retailers using digital design, and 3D virtual design provides a level of realism unattainable in two dimensions. Sharing prototypes virtually allows retailers and sales teams to begin merchandising even before physical samples arrive, and synthesized communication channels between supply chain links improve feedback and subsequent design iterations.

3D-Rendering Technology Providers: Vendor Profiles

Garment designers choose software depending on the type of product to be designed and the practices employed further down the production line. Some technology platforms are geared toward the production of hard goods, such perfume bottles and accessories, although they might offer garment design features as well, while others are more specifically geared toward garment design. When suppliers design for a brand, the brand client may have a preferred software that it uses throughout its own supply chain. However, most platforms allow work to be saved in transferable files, so teams at separate links along the supply chain can use different technologies without being disconnected.

Technologies’ compatibility with separate stages of the production process varies. Some work better for technical designers, who make patterns, while others are geared toward fashion designers. Here, we profile four of the top 3D-rendering technology providers: CLO, Tukatech, Optitex and Browzwear. Other companies in the space include Gerber Technology, Lectra, Centric Software and Dassault Systèmes.

CLO’s software is simple to learn and user-friendly overall. Designers can easily lay out garments using blocks and the virtual fabric accurately reflects how physical materials behave. For example, a piece of fabric may get tucked in if it isn’t laid out properly, and the designer can correct it using the mouse. This feature makes CLO useful for fine-tuning designs. Patterns have been found to be 95% accurate when a CLO 3D sample is materialized.

CLO prides itself on its ease of adoption. The company allows potential clients to try the software for a day. Designers new to the software are usually able to complete a design in three hours during a trial day. With CLO, the process from drawing to production, which typically takes clients 37 days to complete, can be reduced to five days. The company offers individual licensing, which empowers small-scale and freelance designers. The fact that more than 50,000 users have trained themselves to use the software in this capacity demonstrates its intuitive logic.

Like other software providers, CLO has a digital asset management platform. Called CLO Set, the platform is accessible to anyone granted access, and it serves as a communication hub where users can make changes, add comments and tag others.

CLO’s Benefit online fitting system allows individuals to create an avatar that can virtually try on clothes on clients’ sites. The strengths of virtual design carry over in terms of fitting, and the software can accurately represent a garment’s fit on a shopper: fit maps and draping indicators allow shoppers to see how specific garments will fit their bodies.

CLO’s software serves more than 3,000 clients, including luxury and sportswear fashion producers as well as suppliers.

Theory and CLO

Apparel brand Theory says that it prioritizes fabric, fit and timelessness in its design innovation. CLO’s 3D virtual design software has allowed the company to speed the design process and focus on the front end of a garment’s lifecycle. Theory has been able to design its full line on CLO’s 3D software, and its designers and merchandisers have found the software to be user-friendly, strengthening this essential partnership. Theory now wants to implement 3D technologies end to end. Its emphasis on fabric and fit aligns with CLO’s lifelike (rather than virtually perfected) representations of materials’ behavior.

Tukatech provides end-to-end design technical services to apparel companies. Its 3D virtual design platform, Tuka3D, emphasizes accuracy of fit. Tukatech Business Analyst Mike Vizcarra considers the software’s fit portrayal as “very unforgiving,” which ultimately results in perfected fits and accurate measurements. In conjunction with Styku, a company that makes body-scanning technology, Tukatech has developed more than 650 fit models based on real people and is still expanding its Tuka3D library. This range of sizing models captures different distributions and proportions in measurements, enabling the production of better-fitting garments. The company’s robust approach to fit modeling builds consumer trust in brands that use Tukatech’s thorough sizing techniques.

The company’s TukaCloud feature streamlines communication, uniting an entire design team on one platform. This interface features a chat room, iteration history and delegation tools to control which users can monitor various aspects of a design. Teams can use categorized folders to organize and save files such as garment sketches, patterns and fit files, so users can review fit options from past iterations. Users can upload swatches and test their look on existing designs. Buyers and associates can join online fitting sessions and virtual photo shoots to see realistic portrayals of garments without a physical rendering.

According to Vizcarra, companies typically spend as much as 63% of the time between design concept and delivery developing fit and securing approvals. Tukatech’s Tuka3D fit maps and TukaCloud communications function reduce the time clients must spend on those stages, enabling them to get products to market more rapidly. In certain cases, Tukatech clients have been able to eliminate final product samples, moving directly from a 3D rendering to mass production. These companies were able to cut product lifecycle timelines from 45–60 days down to 5–7 days.

Like CLO, Tukatech licenses its software via subscription: for a monthly rate, individual designers can use Tuka3D. Tukatech currently works with more than 4,000 brands and suppliers across 41 countries.

Tukatech and Joie

Contemporary lifestyle brand Joie partnered with Tukatech to take advantage of Tuka3D’s design benefits. Founder Joie Rucker emphasized that it’s easy for fashion designers, technical designers and manufacturers to misinterpret communications from one another and for fashion designers’ visions to end up being lost in translation. Tech packs—which are books of drawings and instructions on how to construct a garment—have traditionally floated back and forth between designers and manufacturers via nondigitized methods. This type of communication is not only wasteful, but inefficient, as manufacturers often do not have time to read an entire booklet just to construct one garment. Tukatech has enabled Joie to stop printing tech packs and instead communicate visually and in text through TukaCloud.

Optitex has strong pattern-creation capacities, making it the preferred software of many technical designers. With Optitex, designers can place pattern pieces on a 3D model and then have the software zip them together. The technology also features both automatic and manual grading, which simplifies sizing. Optitex’s software is useful beyond apparel, and brands and manufacturers in transportation and industrial upholstery also use it.

Under Armour and Optitex

Under Armour first adopted Optitex due to time constraints. About eight weeks before its Fall 2015 sales meeting, the Under Armour team decided to redesign much of the company’s women’s line. The team didn’t have enough time to go through the conventional design and sampling process, so it redesigned with Optitex to meet the deadline. Not only did the Under Armour designers produce the samples they needed, they also introduced the company to an innovative platform with an interactive screen that accurately portrayed how the garments would look on people. Following this success, Under Armour further incorporated Optitex into its supply chain in order to collaborate with designers at an earlier stage, reflect design ideas more accurately in samples and make immediate decisions.

Browzwear is known for its technical accuracy. The software offers two platforms for designing, VStitcher and Lotta. Technical designers like VStitcher because it turns 2D patterns into 3D prototypes. Browzwear says that Lotta is the first 3D software just for fashion designers and that users can make notes or annotations within the platform to send back and forth. Many of the company’s clients, including fashion brands and manufacturers, have incorporated this software all the way down their supply chains.

Columbia and Browzwear

Columbia Sportswear is working with Browzwear to enable efficiencies in its production cycle. Columbia is a relatively traditional company, so its implementation of the technology is noteworthy. Impressed by the accuracy of digital designs, Columbia partnered with Browzwear to speed up its production process and enable quick responses to changes in industry and consumer demand. Columbia designers have found this method of designing less frustrating, and the company is using Browzwear to save time and cut costs while facilitating interaction among teams.

The Path Toward Implementation

For the benefits of 3D rendering to be fully realized, all stages of a product’s lifecycle, from design to sampling to manufacture, must be compatible with the technology used to create the virtual design.

Designing

Generations of fashion designers have trained and worked in the same way, but 3D digital solutions have completely changed their processes. Xcel Brands CEO Robert D’Loren said:

True digital transformations in traditional fashion companies represent incredibly challenging change management projects. At Xcel, we are building our company culture to embrace technology at every level. Success will be dependent on a bias toward innovation held by every single person in our offices and factories.

A major obstacle for the entire fashion industry is education. Design schools are incorporating 3D virtual design into their curricula slowly and not placing much importance on it. CLO’s design software is used by more than 3,000 companies, but only six courses in how to use the software are currently available across campuses. Insufficient training in academia means that many designers will have to learn 3D design on the job.

Designers also face a learning curve, having to design digitally when they are already skilled at designing by hand. The benefits of digital design become more evident down the line and over time. For example, manufacturers produce garments that are more aligned with designers’ visions and designers gain speed and precision once they’re accustomed to using digital design software.

Sampling

3D renderings will continue to replace physical samples in apparel production, and as more brands implement 3D design technologies, they will be able to offer buyers more garment designs and variations. The switch to 3D renderings requires salespeople and buyers to adjust. When PVH Corp. first opened its Tommy Hilfiger digital showroom, only a handful of 25 salespeople were willing to convert to selling digital samples instead of physical prototypes. Buyers are not as averse to the shift, as 3D renderings portray everything they need to see when deciding whether to buy a particular garment.

Manufacturers

Because supply chains contain so many links, communication errors can easily affect quality, vision and speed. Manufacturers need to be able to view and work with 3D files to produce orders accurately. 3D design can eliminate some of the inefficiencies inherent in creating tech packs and physical prototypes, but designers’ methods must work for manufacturers, too. Some software platforms allow different providers to transfer files, but operations run most smoothly when every link of the product lifecycle utilizes the same platform. Suppliers to major retailers are likely to adopt the specific programs their key clients use for maximum efficiency.

To successfully integrate 3D design, teams must begin to view technology as a culture, not a tool. The jump to digital design is no passing fad, but a permanent disruption to the fashion supply chain. Universities are integrating 3D virtual design into curricula as if it were just an optional tool, but the technology is sure to become a requirement for brand survival.

Emerging Trends

Brands that implement 3D design save time from design to production and their final products more closely resemble designers’ visions. The distance between designer and consumer is also shrinking, and 3D rendering allows designers to respond more quickly to consumers’ shifting preferences. These growing capabilities are likely to contribute to the development of customization and crowdsourcing in apparel.

Customization

Faster designs mean more variations, and we expect to see product offerings expand as consumers respond to more fast-fashion offerings enabled by 3D rendering. Digitally modifying a garment design generates no extra material cost and takes little time relative to altering an analog iteration. Developments in 3D rendering are even migrating to the consumer-facing side of the industry.

Fame and Partners is a fashion retailer that offers a sort of garment customization that will become more popular as 3D virtual design and sampling speed up production across the industry. The company uses 2D sketches, leaving 3D visualization to the shopper’s imagination. Once a shopper picks a garment, she can choose the fabric, color and design features she wants. The array of customization options presented to shoppers makes their experience similar to what fashion buyers typically see, when presented with an array of different samples. Fame and Partners sizes by a shopper’s traditional size number as well as by height. Both the sizing and the 2D garment-rendering methods are outdated compared with design-side technology capabilities, but eventually we will see this sort of consumer-facing modeling in 3D.

Virtual sizing is another 3D-rendering feature that companies are now offering directly to consumers. MTailor is a custom clothing company that virtually tailors the fit of online apparel orders. Shoppers use a mobile app to take a video of themselves that is then used to produce a full-body 3D avatar. Clothes ordered are sized based on that model and delivered in two to three weeks. The company says that its fitting mechanisms are 20% more accurate than a professional tailor’s. Like Fame and Partners, MTailor lets customers select their own design preferences such as shirt cuff and collar style and length.

Companies that allow users to customize apparel reflect consumers’ restless interests and changing demands. Fast fashion is thriving because many consumers want to buy new clothes frequently at lower price points. Price points for custom-fitted, e-tailored apparel are high in comparison, so the market for e-tailored apparel will likely remain small unless and until price points come down.

3D Design Enables Crowdsourcing: Betabrand

Li & Fung’s work with online apparel firm Betabrand demonstrates the efficiencies attainable through 3D virtual design. At the forefront of consumer testing, Betabrand is a company that crowdsources its designs. The company has found a way to adapt to constantly changing consumer preferences. Interested customers can codesign a product, voting, for example, on the body type, color, material and trim of a garment. The product then becomes available online within days. This consumer-involved development strategy is feasible because Li & Fung’s virtual design capacities enable quick production.

By implementing digital design, companies can speed up not only the product development stage, but also the materials and production stages, often shaving 12 weeks off the entire process versus traditional garment production. Betabrand uses a crowdfunding platform, so users pay for the products before they are manufactured, eliminating excess inventory. For this approach to be sustainable, the sampling process must be reliable, and Li & Fung’s 3D-rendering technologies generate simulations that are indistinguishable from final physical products.

Industry Landscape

The advancement of 3D rendering could reshape the fashion supply chain. According to industry experts, some design and sampling work that traditionally required four people can be completed with only one person via 3D rendering. With each designer producing new pieces faster, design employment opportunities are set to contract. However, few educational institutions are preparing design students to use 3D design technologies, and many current designers are resistant to letting go of analog design. Until design schools adequately cover digital design in their curricula, the most successful design groups will be those willing to relearn how to design on the job.

Manufacturing and Consumers

As design and sampling lead times become shorter, manufacturers will need to speed up production to keep pace. With brands designing quickly, manufacturers that can respond will thrive in the disrupted retail supply chain.

Capacities to gauge buyer and consumer feedback are growing. 3D-rendering platforms enable faster communication between designers and buyers, and developments in artificial intelligence are enabling the collection of consumer feedback that influences new designs. Given the amount of feedback, full-price sell-through rates are likely to increase. Brands are already considering how to use 3D renderings in e-commerce. When these images are used to display products on websites, returns will likely decrease, as 3D renderings portray garments in multiple sizes more accurately. Some will even display garments on avatars that mimic shoppers’ bodies.

Key Takeaways

Companies that adopt 3D design and sampling technologies are making an investment that demonstrates diligence and long-term commitment to innovation. These technologies enable producers to better match the pace of shifts in consumer demand while improving product quality and reducing inefficient spending. As producers’ interest in 3D technology grows, more providers are developing and diversifying their functional offerings. Key players in the 3D design software space are making advancements in fit mapping, communication platforms and design-adjustment capabilities.

We expect more software companies to enter the 3D virtual design field as the number of brands and retailers wanting to adopt the technology grows. Designing fashion using 3D software is currently considered an innovative plus rather than a necessity, but the capacity to digitalize at an early stage of design will become essential for retail success as consumers continue to push for fresh looks on a faster timeline.

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