For several years now the Internet has been used to send technical information files containing markers, cutting instructions, patterns, and automatic embroidery sewing details around the world. New technological developments mean that the possibilities are increasing even further says Niki Tait, who looks at some of the developments offered by CAD and related companies now responding to these opportunities.

The Internet is an increasingly important tool for the apparel sector, providing a platform for communications between businesses and their customers. In an increasingly global industry it enables information to be transferred immediately and accurately between two locations, regardless of distance. It even provides a way of sharing software, or renting time to use that software. For several years now the Internet has also been a vehicle for sending technical information files containing markers, cutting instructions, patterns and automatic embroidery sewing details - but as technology develops the possibilities are increasing even further.

E-marketing and visualisation
Visualising textile and apparel products in a realistic setting is a key issue in marketing today.

From swimwear to sofas, the DesignCOM and Easy Map solutions from Nedgraphics enable designs to be presented in a life-like environment and can be easily integrated into a company's website, portal or CD-ROM presentation. DesignCOM is a design data management and communication system that contains the Content Management Tool and Content Visualisation Tool. The former uses a highly flexible database to archive and organise information, and is capable of handling thousands of designs that can be tuned to specific customer needs and connected to other information sources within an organisation.
When combined with the DesignCOM web access module, for example, the Content Visualisation Tool can be used to communicate designs and design-related information company-wide via Intranet or Internet. Authorised personnel will have access to this data, and clients, agents and suppliers can view the latest products and related details.

Its use can also be extended with Vision Easy Map, Nedgraphics' web enabled, 3D virtual product visualisation and texture-mapping tool. This enables designs, colours, surfaces, textures and patterns to be photo-realistically rendered onto images taken directly from the CAD system - giving life-like visualisation of digital product samples. Website (or CD-ROM) presentations can be developed, and the prospective customer can view all possible combinations of a product over the web.

Since its debut in July 2000, a second release has been issued with enhancements to improve the speed at which the image can be altered, edit fabrics and colours once applied, and add more quality levels to the overall mapping. Improvements have also been added to the Vision Easy Map Viewer, the point of presentation section of the product which enables the average kiosk user, CD-ROM viewer or web shopper to drag and drop colours or fabrics onto a product without any previous texture mapping experience.

UK-based design and development company, Cre8tiv, is offering a free software development kit (SDK) for its interactive, web-based 3Di software. 3Di is a visualisation technology that enables images or textures to be added to a digital icon. For example, a fashion model can be viewed wearing different fabrics, patterns and colours, or a room can be redecorated with new carpets, fabrics, wallpapers and paints.

The SDK can be downloaded by any company or organisation prior to building solutions using 3Di. Once an application or website is complete and ready to be used commercially or put live on the web, a license will be required from Cre8tiv.

Cre8tiv claims to lead the market "because 3Di offers an unparalleled level of realism combined with extremely quick 'rendering' times. This is achieved by using OpenGL at its core, accepted as the de facto cross-platform standard for 3D rendering. By combining this native 3D language with 'real world' photographic scenes, extremely realistic 3D imagery can be combined with the visual 'clues' that a photograph gives to the eye."

This means that a lot of the information the eye and brain use to establish how 'real' something looks - such as lighting and shadowing - comes from the photograph and the eye can easily be 'fooled' into accepting the addition of the 3D imagery. By limiting the amounts of 3D information that are rendered, the technology can respond in real-time. 

"A lot of the information the eye and brain use to establish how 'real' something looks comes from the visual 'clues' in a photograph "

Also based on mapping in combination with life-like, digitally prepared photographs, Dutch company Picario's FACE visualisation technology enables products to be shown in different versions and colours on a PC, CD-ROM or on the Internet. Using the FACE evaluation software development kit, it is possible to test and integrate this technology into an existing e-business product range without a pre-investment.

Based on the proven technology of Tex Store by Kopperman Web Store opens the door to virtual on-line shopping

Adding to its Tex-Design, Tex-Dress and Tex-Store applications, the German software house Koppermann Computersysteme GmbH has recently released two new web technologies: Web Store, which posts 3D virtual stores directly to the Internet for viewing with any browser; and Web Dress, which also enables interactive texture mapping.

Web-Store certainly opens the door to virtual on-line shopping. While on the web and using the mouse or keyboard to navigate, the user can enter a virtual store or in-store concession, walk through it, turn, look up or down. Clicking on any garment hanging in the store will open a window that provides all data relating to that garment. It is also possible to order the garment.

"We believe that this unique technology will be used in e-commerce to provide a comfortable virtual shop environment with which the customers are familiar and simulate an actual in-store shopping experience on-line. It can be further used to promote lifestyle concepts to the customer or to communicate store layouts to the store or department managers - the possibilities are endless," says Andreas Lachner, president of Koppermann. He continues: "An important goal of the development was to create the virtual environment directly from our applications, eliminating the needless re-entering of data such as style numbers, prices, style descriptions or colour-names."

The interactive Web-Dress is designed as a client-server model. Utilising the Tex-Design plug-in for texture mapping, prepared digital images and individual fabric designs can be uploaded to the website. Via any browser, the user can go to the site, choose the image and choose the fabric. The software will automatically render the digital image with the chosen fabric design and present a virtual image of the garment.

To accelerate the speed of draping and data storage, the simulation is performed on the server independent of the client's hardware configuration. Anti-aliasing technology, together with an intelligent cache mechanism, guarantees both speed and high quality. And because the system works with native data formats, there is no need to export or duplicate the data.

The latest software update from fit technology developer My Virtual Model enables a shopper to 'build' a size-related virtual model of him/herself, dress this model with clothes selected from a virtual store, and view them at different angles to see how they look and fit. Developed as a result of customer demand, the technology supports better-looking faces, more realistic garments, and more natural bodies. It includes new hairstyles, hair colours, skin tones, new life-like lighting, and new body shapes.

Dubbed E3, to signify the dramatic evolution of the technology over the past three years, the company says: "E3 combines the most advanced visualisation and sizing techniques available, with a simple user interface creating a seamless virtual dressing room for online retailers." The JC Penny, Galleries Lafayette and Lands' End websites all incorporate both male and female virtual models enabling virtual 'try-ons' of their products before purchase.

Windows-based Nester is an advanced, fully automatic software tool for marker making and nesting and incorporates a combination of fully automatic and interactive options. Nester Software Technologies Inc has recently launched its new web-based automatic nesting service 'e-Nester' - a tool that automatically generates markers over the Internet and is accessible to any CAD system through the DXF pattern data exchange. E-Nester provides access on a pay-as-you-go basis, making the technology available for any nesting need and volume level.

First launched at IMB 2000, is assyst-bullmer's web-based service for automatic marker making. Due to demand, the website's hardware has since been scaled up threefold, and the website has moved to one of the large commercial 'webfarms' to guarantee security, availability, scalability and bandwidth. Automatic marker making is the first of a suite of planned web-based services which assyst-bullmer will be offering to its customers.

Assyst explains "The advantages of web-based marker making are the immediate availability of marking resources to cover peak demands and to bridge other resource shortages, without investment in equipment and software and the cost for their upkeep." 

"The advantages of web-based marker making are the immediate availability of marking resources to cover peak demands "

The next service being launched is the generation of control files to drive plotters and cutters produced from the automatically made markers. These files can reside in a customer-owned secure electronic 'postbox' at the website, and downloaded to the location of the physical plotter or cutter anywhere on the web as and when required.

As part of its new LectraOn-line B2B Internet tool, Lectra Systems is also offering on-line automated marker making. The first three key components of this new e-business offer - e-design, e-manufacturing and e-sales - were also introduced at IMB 2000 and marry together CAD/CAM, virtual reality and the Internet. Benefits are designed to include contact with new business associates, the out-sourcing of non-strategic tasks, enhanced time-to-market, reduced costs and improved quality.

As part of its new LectraOn-line B2B Internet tool, Lectra Systems is also offering on-line automated marker making. The first three key components of this new e-business offer - e-design, e-manufacturing and e-sales - were also introduced at IMB 2000 and marry together CAD/CAM, virtual reality and the Internet. Benefits are designed to include contact with new business associates, the out-sourcing of non-strategic tasks, enhanced time-to-market, reduced costs and improved quality.

There are four main components: LectraOnline Exchange, Applications, Expertise and Store. Providing totally secure global communication in real-time, LectraOnline Exchange enables companies to exchange product data with their supply chain partners. Designs, patterns, specifications, fabric and trimming details, and style catalogues can all be interchanged quickly and efficiently with specified companies, irrespective of compatibility or file size. Of the two options, OpenExchange provides access to the worldwide Lectra community, and EnterpriseExchange provides a private Extranet where companies and their business partners can use personalised online applications and services.

LectraOnline Applications provide immediate access, 24-hours a day, to the most up-to-date Lectra software and is specifically designed to improve supply chain performance by 'filling in' for partners who may not have the latest technology or expertise available to them. The first of the four applications, automatic marker making via the Internet, helps clients obtain the best possible fabric usage with their markers. Coming soon will be 3D Virtual Garment Generation, which will enable garments to be created 'virtually' in 3D from two-dimensional pattern pieces, virtual fabric and a 3D virtual mannequin. Colour calibration will help guarantee colour consistency throughout the supply chain, from creation to customer. And online catalogues of style, fabric and colourways can be created electronically for use on- or offline.

LectraOnline Expertise is an online customer care and support service providing remote real-time on-screen help at the client's workstation with problem diagnosis available through three international call centres in Bordeaux (France), Atlanta (USA) and Hong Kong (China). Finally LectraStore enables direct online ordering of selected Lectra products and services.

Nearly all CAD companies - including Ai, Karat Software Corporation and Investronica - are offering web-based product data management systems to help with product development as well as internal and business-to-business communications of specific products, ranges and collections. Gerber Technology, however, has recently widened its WebPDM product data management software to include three tiered versions that provide considerably different levels of software to address the needs of different types of user.

This approach was developed as a result of a Customer Needs Survey, in which Gerber was able to identify three distinct categories within the apparel manufacturing base that reflect varying needs of product development software.

Designed for simplicity and ease of use, WebPDMspec has been developed for manufacturers wanting significant productivity improvements and replaces internally developed spreadsheet and word processing systems. It helps a company automate the product specification process and uses a simple but comprehensive method to track individual styles within a collection. Here the need to integrate drawings and data, the use of automated measurement tables, integrated construction details, bill of materials, a simple costing system and other miscellaneous product details are all required, as is the ability to access existing supplier information and access the CAD data from within the user's specification system.

Managing the full collection development process requires additional features such as process control, approval/disapproval of previous steps, and collection status follow-up through exception reporting. Branded production companies are also demanding sophisticated 3D costing, their buyers need search capabilities over the Internet, and quality assurance teams want the ability to introduce sampling results directly into the system from suppliers around in the world. These are the companies the existing standard WebPDM, or WebPDM V3.8, is aimed at. It is a 'live' electronic system designed to reduce product development cycles, track changes as they are made, and avoid costly errors in communication. Operating from one system server, information is accessed anywhere in the world by contractors, agents and suppliers.

For many companies the supply chain starts at the collection development stage, extends through manufacturing, and ends with a purchase by the customer. For these businesses, Gerber has created the WebPDM B2B solution which facilitates communication with suppliers and contractors and allows production improvement suggestions to be made interactively. For example, a manufacturer would expect proposals from the fabric and trim suppliers before finalising a design. Using WebPDM B2B, product specifications are shared with all groups involved in the process, using video, photos and drawings that are immediately available. Most importantly, the WebPDM B2B user expects suppliers to integrate their production schedules within the framework of the entire supply chain.

Niki Tait, C.Text FTI, FCFI heads Apparel Solutions, which provides independent assistance to the apparel industry in the areas of manufacturing methods, industrial engineering, information technology, and quick response.