With fashion supply chains around the world fracturing in the face of travel bans, factory shutdowns and remote working, tools such as 3D virtual design, fit and prototyping software are helping businesses to stay on track.

While apparel brands and manufacturers have until now been slow to adopt 3D design and fit tools, the technology is coming into its own as suppliers and buyers are forced to work remotely to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

The software provides 3D visualisation of garments in real time, enabling companies to share and modify their designs, carry out virtual fit reviews and approvals, as well as buying sessions across the supply chain on true-to-life virtual avatars. 

The process also helps speed the product development time, reduces the need for physical samples, can improve workflows and decision-making – and critically, lets companies be more agile and responsive to changing market needs. Adding to these benefits, 3D solutions can also have a big impact on sustainability and waste reduction, with fewer samples meaning less material waste and a smaller carbon footprint.

However, as with any new technology, it is taking time for the industry to gain critical mass in using 3D design and prototyping software.

One company seeing an increase in demand for 3D fit tools is Alvanon, whose Alvanon Body Platform (ABP) is a cloud database designed to enable brands and retailers to share their 3D fit and core body standards across the supply chain. 

The platform uses Alvanon's virtual AlvaForm – a digital representation of the company's AlvaForm dress and body forms – to create 3D fit standards and realistic virtual prototypes. 

Jason Wang, chief operating officer, says that since launching last year, more than 160 brands have uploaded their 3D fit standards to the ABP. "Our 3D virtual bodies allow brands and retailers to monitor fit and sizing within the digital supply chain."

US sportswear label Under Armour last year went a step further by working with Alvanon to digitise its size range and create a 3D avatar fleet, from infant size 0 to Men's 5XL. Wang says this is allowing it to make products with improved sizing and standardisation and "next-level accuracy."

Also in this area is BodyBlock, from US-based Fit3D. Its database of 3D body scans allows the user to optimise grade rules, size constructs, and develop a library of 3D body models to integrate with computer aided design (CAD) tools. According to the company, users can perform a full sizing optimisation backed by validated data "in weeks, not months."

Meanwhile, Lectra's solutions include Modaris, a 3D virtual prototyping module designed to be used alongside its Quick Estimate cloud application, which allows pattern development teams to make their own fabric estimates "on the go."

Design process

The design process can reap immediate benefits from the use of 3D technology. Ketty Pillet, Gerber Technology's vice president of marketing, says its AccuMark 3D can save users up to 75% in lead time "and reduce physical samples to one."

Also in this space is EFI Optitex, whose solutions include its Pattern Design Software (PDS), which combines 2D design with 3D visualisation. Amit Ben-Sheffer, head of product, says it can "create accurate simulation, tension maps for fitting, photorealistic rendering, colourways and print placement, and as an avatar editor."

Enhanced connectivity

Workflow is another key area. Centric Software has developed an integrated digital 3D design and development process that Ron Watson, VP product, explains is "both natively integrated so as to give users more control and flexibility from within Centric PLM, and also software-agnostic, encompassing several 3D fashion solutions, such as CLO, Browzwear and EFI Optitex."

Watson adds that 3D technology empowers brands and manufacturers to revolutionise their product development processes, eliminating endless rework of designs and prototyping to make product development decisions much faster and get more innovative products to market, sooner. 

But he says it is essential for companies to implement the technology across all relevant parts of the business to avoid bottlenecks and ensure they are all connected on a "single source of truth." 

Shared results

Savannah Crawford, chief collaborator at fashion technology company Tukatech, says another key challenge to overcome is making disparate technologies work together to make significant gains in speeding up the process from design sketch to style approval and beyond. 

She says apparel companies often adopt 3D design without accounting for fit or how the garment will be made upon approval, for instance. "They have a beautiful 3D garment on screen, but they need a separate CAD (computer aided design) system to prepare for production."

Tukatech aims to help brands resolve this problem with its TUKAcad pattern-making and grading solution, which imports 2D patterns directly to TUKA3D, its virtual sample making tool. Once the 3D sample has been approved, the manufacturer can also use TUKAcad for remaining pre-production work, and costing or production markers. 

Virtual clothing lines

Gerber Technology's Pillet stresses that even small companies and startups should adopt 3D. "Imagine being able to build your virtual clothing line, put it out on social media, see how many likes you get, and then go out and buy fabric for the styles with the highest likes only. Fabric inventory unused could put a small company out of business." 

The skills gap

However, the successful implementation of 3D design and prototyping tools requires a change of mindset around training and staff roles, industry experts say 

A key challenge for designers is to think and design in virtual 3D from the very start of their process, while becoming familiar with the technical implications and requirements for their 3D models if they may be applied further downstream in the organisation. 

"In a sense, the designer of the future has to be a concept artist, pattern maker and 3D artist combined," says Joost Alferdinck, chief product officer at PixelPool.

Catherine Cole, CEO of Motif, a knowledge hub and e-learning platform launched by Alvanon in 2018, stresses that in order to successfully adopt 3D technology, clothing brands and manufacturers should first take a step back and "focus on the 'why' of digital transformation." 

She explains that "understanding what 3D solves positions companies to identify the areas of opportunity and the teams that will pilot specific proof of concept projects."

Cole says the key skills and experience needed include understanding digital work process flows, 3D computer aided design (CAD), analytical problem solving and an understanding of lean manufacturing. Given the challenge of upskilling staff while still managing business-as-usual, she advises that companies carry out skills training on a small scale, as this "will enable you to deliver measurable results quicker and facilitate training."

This is an abridged version of a series of articles that appear in the latest issue of just-style magazine. Click here to read more.