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Crocs’ Product Innovation VP on 3-D Design and the Power of the ‘Digital Twin’

Erik Olson, Crocs’ VP of product innovation and development, thinks the footwear industry has just scratched the surface when it comes to effectively incorporating 3-D technology into the design and marketing side of the business.

Prior even to the advancements 3-D modeling has seen in the past decade, Olson told the audience at PI Apparel on Tuesday, the brand would employ “armies” of people to create thousands of molds, physical copies and samples just for the sales and design teams. Over time, those samples and molds could evolve into something different than what the marketing team expected to be selling in the season ahead.

Needless to say, Crocs eventually found that to be an inefficient model.

“We’re pretty much unbound by tradition,” Olson admitted. “But over the years we got involved in some pretty traditional footwear practices and we’re trying to work those out.”

That’s why in 2005 Crocs moved to 3-D imaging to replicate and eliminate some of the physical models it normally would produce early in the design and development process. Its 3-D, CAD-based designs eliminated the need to create physical molds or models. Instead, the technology allowed Crocs to move directly to machining the digital models it had already created. From there, the process opened up into the rest of the business—though it was somewhat limited in scope for many years.

“It was great at helping us make engineering decisions, not design decisions at first,” Olson said.

However, starting with the addition of 3-D printing into the design process in 2007, that all changed for Crocs. After seeing the power of what 3-D design could do, the brand decided to go all in on the third dimension—be it through 3-D models created by printing technology or with the use of digital 3-D assets in a creative space.

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“3-D printing is really something that’s helped change our process over the years,” Olson said. “For years we were really interested in product expansion, so we were able to use it in a design sense when we wanted lots of variations. We started to put more detail into our CADs to better understand what they were. We began to make better selections on what product we were going to market with and what product we could invest in.”

The advantages of shifting to 3-D modeling during the design phase became immediately apparent for the brand. Olson pointed to a chunky soled sandal Crocs was able to design, produce and distribute in a short period of time to capitalize on style trends—and its ability to market that product much earlier than it could with a physical sample—as a great example of 3-D’s utility over the years.

More than that, however, Olson said that committing to 3-D modeling also impacted the company as a whole. As digital technology grew in importance to one department after the next, Crocs began to vertically integrate its asset library into a company-wide PLM so that now the marketing team has immediate access to the same assets as the original designer.

Olson said that Crocs began to think differently about the production process from the ground up. As digital assets grew in realism and accuracy, the brand continued to expand them into other areas, essentially creating a brand new space to test products without any of the risk incurred when ordering so much as a single physical model.

Product design and development typically result in a tech pack, a design master document created initially from 2-D images assembled by designers.

“A 2-D sketch on a wall is going to look completely different than the product will at almost any stage in the design process,” Olson explained. “Then you go out and create the dreaded tech pack. The design team hates them. The 3-D team hates to use them because they don’t make sense. All these problems exist, but it is a necessary, inefficient communication that is used—was used [to create product].”

Streamlining production with the use of 3-D modeling also improved Crocs’ speed to market, an advantage that Olson expects will become increasingly valuable as global footwear production continues to be divided and diversified out of China. Crocs has already said it would likely move the majority of its Chinese production to other regions if current trade conditions hold.

Not only that, but brands are now beholden to a different kind of consumer—a digital consumer.

“The biggest distribution channel is online,” Olson explained. “So, this has really changed the way that consumers purchase your product. And it means change for us too. It’s going to mean more design variation. We’re going to need to offer a lot more product. Because as you have two or three platforms that sell the majority of their product online, your partners are going to need something unique.”

That’s why Crocs is investing so heavily in the “digital twin” concept, according to Olson. The ability to create and simulate an entirely new product in a virtual space means less time spent producing and testing physical units and less risk involved in trying new and interesting designs. Designers can change the texture, shape and materials of a product at will and still be able to determine its value down to fractions of a cent—and can even simulate how different materials will work together when combined.

“Making poor product costs a lot. It costs a lot to create it, it costs a lot for the quality,” Olson said. “Then you move it out into the world and you warehouse it. If it’s really bad, you’re stuck with the inventory. We’re struggling a lot because of our poor, poor notion of forecasting. We think with a digital twin, we can actually move our digital asset through the process and get a much better simulation and an accurate view of how our consumer is going to react.”

As this digital outlook becomes more ubiquitous and accepted by both designers and sales teams, Olson believes Crocs will be well suited to excel in those conditions thanks to its experience in 3-D modeling that now can be traced back decades—and to hear it from Olson, 3-D printing will remain the past, present and future of Crocs.