Even as we all search for nearly everything online, athletic and fashion designers are still searching for materials in physical swatch books. This, at the very start of the design process, is a huge impediment to inspiration and creativity. It is also a major cost and time drag. Searching for a specific pattern for a project, like a leopard print, could take days flipping through multiple supplier books just to find what is needed.
The bottleneck in the development process continues when the material teams then have to contact the supplier to determine whether the selected material is still in inventory, where the supply is located, what the cost or quantity is, and if it’s even compliant with restricted substance laws. This involves many hours and days of back and forth communication, if the material is even available. If it’s not, then the conversation shifts to other material options, and it could add days to weeks to the process.
The apparel industry can’t continue to manage its materials the analog way in a digital world—it is too costly and negates any speed-to-market advantage. It must change. And it is changing.
Brands collaborate on a solution
In 2016, the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA) began working with leading brands, and technology companies like PTC, and Substance from Allegorithmic, to build an industry-led platform called Material Exchange (ME), which allows for the rapid search and visualization of materials, automates data input and improves communication between brands, material suppliers and manufacturers.
Whether it’s a large company or a start-up, anyone can use the platform to search for materials in real time across a multitude of global suppliers that upload material images and specs into the system. Filters include things like type (leather, textile, PU, etc.), pattern, color, country of origin (to help shrink supply chains), to help narrow down searches. Users can also communicate with suppliers, asking questions, or requesting a single physical swatch be delivered, helping increase sustainability through reduced waste.
Impacts for development
Product teams from footwear, apparel and accessory brands can search all suppliers who provide this visibility as well as toggle search preferences to only look at approved supplier offerings. This also allows product development and material directors the ability to see who is looking at what materials as well as all communication with suppliers on the platform. The platform’s security measures prevent brands from seeing materials developed exclusively for other brands, and suppliers from seeing materials from other suppliers to prevent collusion or knock-offs.
Wasted time gets reduced and so do labor costs related to data processing and managing material specs, which can cost large companies and suppliers hundreds of thousands per year, as it allows brands to pull down material specs directly into their product lifecycle management (PLM) software, or by Excel.
Driving innovation and reducing risk
One area of development ahead for ME is the addition of testing lab compliance certificates you can view by materials or a sustainability certification that product safety teams need, which could save companies large testing bills. Material Exchange will also have the ability to pull material images directly into 3-D CAD software so designers can change out colors, patterns and types of materials instantly without brands having to spend hours create profiles in their databases before they do so.
The platform could be key to helping companies cut development times and costs, while helping increase the focus on trend-right, innovative, products. Going to “digital” development can be costly and hard, but ME is a no brainer. There is a small annual user fee to help keep the platform growing and innovating, but the value back will be tenfold through lower labor, admin, testing and compliance costs to your company.
ME will launch at the Materials Show in Portland Aug. 15-16.
Andy Polk is senior vice president of FDRA. He oversees the footwear industry’s innovation working group and helps companies navigate a range of business challenges and better understand innovations related to product development to production. You can contact him at email@example.com