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Digital Sampling’s Benefits Preview a Promising Future

While the pandemic has hastened the pace of change across many industries, few have been more directly associated with saving costs and trimming lead times as the digital sampling technologies that have been on the on uptick since March.

While virtual design tools geared at giving product developers a real-life garment simulation had popped up well before the pandemic as a way to prevent overproduction of fabric, the work-from-home dynamic Covid created has made digital sampling an almost mandatory tool for design and development teams.

Tommy Hilfiger announced in November 2019 that it planned to shift its design to a 100 percent digital process by 2022 with the implementation of 3D design technology throughout its global apparel design teams in Amsterdam. While that move seemed like a bold ambitions at the time, the pandemic has made it clairvoyant.

Levi’s followed suit in April when it unveiled it had rolled out photo-realistic 3D renderings of denim garments and samples, with CEO Chip Bergh highlighting that the digital samples were a massive hit for the denim brand’s first virtual assortment meeting, which included 100 merchants from around the world.

In fact, the samples helped take weeks out of the company’s go-to-market cycle, Bergh said in an earnings call: “The feedback was that this may have been the best assortment meeting ever, and we may never go back to live meetings.”

Upon expanding its partnership with digital product testing platform First Insight in working with 2D and 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software Optitex, Marks & Spencer revealed in November that its transition to 3D imagery samples resulted in increased product test completion rates and boosted respondents’ comments by 50 percent, providing richer product feedback to the company’s product development and merchant teams.

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The U.K.-based department store even noted that the use of 3D CAD technology reduced cost and lead time in Marks & Spencer’s product development process.

With so much uncertainty related to the resurgence of the pandemic over the holiday season and the expected continuance of virtual events in lieu of in-person trade shows into 2021, digital sampling appears here to stay, especially if money-hampered apparel and footwear businesses are looking to conserve resources.

At the R/Evolution Sourcing Journal Summit in October, experts estimated that physical samples could end up costing anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 per sample, which should plenty of incentive to brands to experiment with the technology.

“I think on the development side, it’s really important to educate the rest of your organization about some of these costs that are not really calculated out right away until you look at the sampling and the cost of changing and all those things,” Erik Olson, vice president of product development and sourcing at Crocs, said during the panel. “It’s not well understood. So we do need to do a better job of explaining to our organizations how these margins get attacked.”

Digital sampling tech advances bode well for 2021

Companies such as Gerber Technology, CLO, Optitex and Browzwear are among many that have seen uptick in apparel users throughout the pandemic and have since continued to upgrade their platforms and form new partnerships. This is an extremely positive sign for 2021 given the scope of visual assets now available for sharing across platforms.

“I think the realization really is there, where before, it was really a question of ‘Yeah, we understand virtual simulation and these types of things are important, buy we’re so busy that we can’t get to it right now’ to now, where it’s ‘We’ve got to figure out a way to get there,’” Karsten Newbury, chief strategy and digital officer at Gerber Technology, told Sourcing Journal.

Gerber integrated its AccuMark 2D and 3D design technologies with its YuniquePLM platform so that users can access digital samples and mass manage sample requests for all garments in a line, while enabling multiple users to comment and report on the product to ultimately improve collaboration.

CLO recently partnered with SwatchOn to convert 200,000 of the South Korean B2B platform’s fabric SKUs into digital samples. Next year, SwatchOn will launch its full digital fabric library making all of its offerings accessible to its 12,000 brand members.

CLO was busy onboarding new apparel users prior to the pandemic, according to Ryan Teng, the company’s vice president of business development. But he said it was “unavoidable” to mention the effect Covid budget freezes had on its enterprise clients.

“They found the silver lining in the moment and used that time for us to teach them the software and roll it out to a wider scope of their employees,” Teng told Sourcing Journal. “Now that things are slowly moving back into the flow, they’re confirmed that there is definitive ROI in scaling the software, all within a few months, not years.”

In a more outside-of-the-box collaboration, Optitex partnered with Daz3D, a software that enables users to create high-resolution 3D images and animations, to offer its users a suite of 3D avatars, including avatars and characters created from real-life scans. Optitex users now have access to 5 million smart-content assets to design virtual collections for buyers, vendors and marketers that they can place on these characters can be customized, morphed, accessorized and visualized in garments in a variety of sizes and poses.

And in another expanded partnership, Browzwear and fellow 3D design technology provider Metail are assimilating the latter’s EcoShot 3D garment-on-model technology into the former’s VStitcher design visualization tool, which is designed to serve as a virtual photo studio.

The images generated with EcoShot are designed to providing more natural looking and inspirational designs compared with the garments shown on avatars alone. From there, users can then request EcoShot Finished Images, which can be used for line review meetings and for presenting to buyers.

Although the use of digital sampling is vital for the future of apparel from a cost, time to market and overall sustainability standpoint, it doesn’t mean there is no room left for physical samples in today’s apparel ecosystem.

Teng compared the changes in the habits of developers to those learning how to make sourdough bread from scratch, in that they want to produce their 3D designs with the platform and then sew the product at home.

Where he said sentiment is changed the most is “the realization that 3D isn’t just a pretty shiny new toy, but an actual solution to most of their problems. It’s no longer a luxury to adopt 3D, it’s become imperative.”

Click here for more from the Sourcing Report 2021.