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Can 3-D Virtual Sampling Save the Apparel Industry?

Samples, it seems, may be going the way of the dinosaur.

The fashion industry has seen the potential benefits of 3-D renderings for a few years, but has yet to be able to bridge the gap between theoretical applications and actual implementation. But it seems, we might be approaching a tipping point.

At last month’s Sourcing Summit in New York, Robert Sinclair, president of global sourcing and manufacturing company Li & Fung touted the company’s use of virtual sampling and fitting tools as a means to save time and money. And new solutions continue to be introduced into the market like Tukatech’s TUKA3D Designer Edition, which purports to allow designers to bring their concepts to life without patternmaking, and Lectra’s Modaris 3D, which offers virtual prototyping designed to remove the need for physical samples.

And though apparel is just starting to embrace 3D modeling, it’s not new. It’s been in use in industries like furniture, autos and aerospace for some time, according to Ed Gribbin, president Alvanon, which consults the industry on speed to market, fit and supply chain execution. But apparel has faced an additional hurdle that those others haven’t: fabric. “The challenges with the technology until 2015 were that it was difficult to render fabric characteristics. Appearance and textures were good but stretch and drape and gravity hanging on the body were not very accurate,” he said.

While there are big brands that employ 3-D, it’s use is still limited, Gribbin said. “The rest of the industry,” he said, “is kicking the tires.”

Add Hugo Boss to the list of companies ready to take digital for a test drive. The fashion house announced last week that buyers and press won’t be presented with rolling racks during its Hugo 2018 Pre-Fall Collection presentations but rather a 65-inch touchscreen that resembles a table. The innovation, which is exclusive to Hugo Boss, uses a technique that “taps a form of agile project management that enables the rapid visualization of solutions to complex problems within a flexible framework,” according the the company’s statement. While it’s not clear whether the looks will be rendered in full 3-D, it does illustrate the direction the industry is headed.

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The move to 3-D digital renderings is “inevitable,” Gribbin said. Though, he added, they won’t replace samples altogether. They’ll just reduce the number of physical iterations needed to go from concept to wholesale sale, ideally slashing development times in half from the current 18 month norm. Gribbin sees 3-D being used “for design, line planning, virtual prototyping so that decisions can be made on developing from a virtual line as opposed to from a physical line of samples.”

While the trade applications are clear, he’s less confident about consumers’ comfort level with buying from virtual models at this point. However, Alvanon does have a client that’s planning to roll out a consumer facing application in a year.

Still, others say the time is now.

Gerber Technologies recently announced a partnership with fashion tech company Avametric to offer what it’s calling the first end-to-end 3-D platform that’s realistic enough to be used for production purposes as well as consumer-facing applications.

Though experts may disagree on the rate at which 3-D modeling technology will be adopted by the industry, Gribbin said one thing is clear: we don’t have a choice about whether or not to embrace it.

“That whole idea of analog thinking in product development will drive the next wave of store closing and bankruptcies,” he said. “People like Amazon are threatening traditional retail unless they figure out a way to shorten their calendars.”