3D CAD and Product Lifecycle Management are two technologies revolutionising the clothing industry. And vendors of these systems are lining up for this year's Texprocess trade fair to help apparel retailers, brands and manufacturers navigate a range of industry challenges, including faster time-to-market and improved productivity.

Historically in clothing, we sketched a design, made patterns, produced a physical first sample garment in cloth, and then determined how it looked and fitted. Modifications were made by making physical sample after physical sample to get an acceptable look. Once approved, the entire sample making process might have been repeated to get an acceptable fit.

It took an average of six weeks and many samples to get a product finally approved, with a high percentage of designs being rejected from the range during this process. Considering the number of different collections and ranges today, combined with market forces to reduce time to market, this is no longer an acceptable way to run product development - even worse when one considers the costs involved.

Over the last 25 years or so companies have been developing virtual CAD systems, beginning with textile design and progressing to being able to change fabrics on a garment design. We could build up a virtual weave, change colourways or count sizes, continually being able to see the changes on a design on screen. This was extended to knits. The difficulty was to get a realistic idea of how different types of fabrics would drape on a body. Add to this the idea of simulating this drape in a garment on a moving avatar, and the complexity increased further.

At the same time body scanning was at its early stages, though this enabled mass sizing surveys to build different demographic size charts and avatars detailing the actual sizes of women across a range of different criteria. 

As all these technologies evolved, 3D CAD, commonly used in automobile, aeronautics and many other industries, also began to develop for our industry. Today, not only can we design a garment on a static avatar of our exact choice, we can even see how the design will look, fit and drape, and even move on an avatar walking, or even cycling, in almost any fabric.

3D CAD certainly seems to be coming of age for the clothing industry, which is not surprising when one considers the enormous competitive benefits it can provide. 

Imagine being able to see how a garment looks, drapes and fits over a complete size range without ever making a sample, even before the fabric has been made; being able to try out different colours, fabrics, motifs, embroideries, fastenings, trims, to see which looks best in virtual reality. Imagine being able to discuss all this with merchandisers, technicians, sourcing, and customers in real time around the world before a single sample has been made. Then being able to build a virtual range and plan store and catalogue layouts before a piece of cloth is cut. Think of the reduction in product development time and cost that will result.

Think of being able to develop the pattern on screen, virtually sew it together, check the fit, change where the seams go, the type of fastenings, amount of flare. At the click of a key, reduce the pattern back to 2D, input other modifications, check back in 3D, walk the virtual mannequin, an avatar of your in house fit models, along the catwalk, check for the fit and fabric tensions under different lighting conditions, throughout every size range in 3D, make modifications as necessary, and unpeel the 2D patterns ready, if one really wants to make one, for a final actual sample.

The compression wear and swimwear industries have also learned how to make skin-tight pieces quickly by simply drafting shapes around a 3D model and reducing these into flat patterns, using the virtual avatar performing the virtual sport, to see the actual stresses and strains on that garment. The sizes and shapes of avatars can be changed on screen, enabling a user to create a virtually unlimited number of body types by adjusting body shape, height, circumference, muscle mass, and dozens of other measurements.

All is now possible, and all will be on view by different CAD companies at Texprocess 2015 in  Frankfurt, from 4-7 May.

The CAD revolution
Asaf Landau, CEO at Optitex, explains: "You create fewer samples, increase precision and uniformity of your product line's fit, and drastically shorten its time-to-market; to name just a few of the benefits of introducing virtual sampling to your design process. They aren't just good for prototyping; these simulations are excellent tools you can use for marketing and selling your products. It drastically cuts the time you have to spend on each sample, the cost associated, as well as the hassle of scheduling and organising numerous fit sessions. No more waiting for FedEx to deliver your next sample."

Kurt Salmon, the leading global management consulting firm specialising in the retail and consumer products industry, adds: "The key advantages are greater speed and innovation. 3D technology allows prototypes (virtual products) to be produced more quickly than ever before, enabling retailers and CPG [consumer packaged goods such as apparel] companies to be more responsive to market needs. The net result: better products."

Mike Elia, CEO of Gerber Technology, believes: "3D will be a disruptive technology. Its applications are broad and will have an impact from the creative and garment development process to merchandising and e-commerce."

And Tukatech notes: "3D apparel design software eliminates the need for trial and error in physical sampling. By creating virtual prototypes before physical samples, designs can be modified more easily, significantly shortening the sample approval process. There are a multitude of uses, from instant product customisation to making flawless marketing displays."

However the new revolution does not stop at design but embraces an ever sophisticated electronic era. Although we all recognise the need to get faster approvals for samples and to get faster production, the apparel industry also requires a major rethink from the management of product development throughout the entire lifecycle of the collection.

To quote Tukatech: "We have almost exhausted the cheap labour resources, however, the pressure of reducing waste continues, and everyone is reciting the same mantras: 'I want it faster,' 'I want it cheaper.' As there are no margins left in this business, unless technology is implemented, we will just continue chanting and nothing will change."

Product lifecycle management
Product lifecycle management (PLM) is often badged as a software system, a computer tool, but in reality it is far more than that. It is the process of managing the entire lifecycle of a product from inception, through design and manufacture, to service and disposal of manufactured products. It integrates people, data, processes and business systems, and provides a product information backbone for companies and their extended enterprise.

Product lifecycle management can be considered one of the four cornerstones of a manufacturing corporation's information technology structure. All companies need to manage communications and information with their customers (CRM - customer relationship management), their suppliers and fulfilment (SCM - supply chain management), their resources within the enterprise (ERP - enterprise resource planning) and their product planning and development (PLM).

PLM starts before design and goes far beyond the now universally used Product Data Management or PDM. It includes forecasting, collection planning and range building to see what designs are actually required, and works through the product development stage into supply chain management and manufacturing, integrating into the final distribution of the garment, whether this is though wholesale, retail, or anything else, including all the logistics involved. It is the lynchpin and central to a company's control system.

PLM should not be seen as a single software product but a collection of software tools and working methods integrated together to address either single stages of the lifecycle or connect different tasks or manage the whole process. Some software providers cover the whole PLM range while others focus on single niche applications. It is the integration which is key to success. 

A visit to Texprocess 2015 will enable companies to discuss all these issues with suppliers under one roof and see how their requirements and shortfall areas can best be addressed. Texprocess 2015 takes place at Messe Frankfurt, Germany from 4-7 May 2015.