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3D in Apparel Design - A Revolution in the Industry

The history and future of 3D design in the apparel industry

July 12, 2011

By Paul Clarke and Walter T. Wilhelm
Three decades ago, three-dimensional (3D) technology use in the fashion industry was limited to a few adventurous manufacturers and was largely dismissed by the apparel sector. Today, pressure in the apparel market to produce more collections under shorter lead times has led to a veritable 3D revolution affecting the industry as a whole. Cost reduction, enhanced creativity, and improved communication are only the beginning of what 3D technology has to offer this complex and dynamic market.

A Slow Start


By 1990, 3D design technology was commonly used in aeronautics, furniture, and many other industries—but still not in fashion. The number of apparel companies willing to experiment with 3D fashion technology were few. In addition, because of the complexity of the original 3D programs, fashion designers who found the technology too difficult resisted adopting it. Only in the last decade has 3D technology made its revolution and gained acceptance as both a design and a merchandising tool in the apparel industry. It is now recognized for its effectiveness in streamlining product development and is applied throughout the supply chain.
3D technology evolves
Initially, 3D technology was used only to visualize styles. With the early systems, designs viewed on an avatar had little correlation to the actual fit of a model. The technology was simply not advanced enough to be used to check the fit of a garment. Now, however, improved 3D technology includes tools that respond to the specific fit challenges encountered by fashion companies worldwide. This technology is not only economically advantageous, but it can also be a priceless competitive advantage in a fashion environment.
Advances in computer speed and performance over the past thirty years have made digital communication much more practical.
3D technology has benefited from these developments in three main aspects:
•Computer power
Initially, 3D design required very powerful supercomputers, such as Cray, Sun, and similar systems. Today’s laptops are as fast as or faster and have more storage. Furthermore, the cost per station is a fraction of the investment made in earlier models. In addition, greater power coupled with advances in software techniques allows designers to create life-like avatars with fabric draping.
•Graphic technology
Pixelization in early 3D technology resulted in jagged line quality and drawings that simply did not look clean. With today’s vector-based technology, drawings are even clearer than the artists’ hand sketches.
•Ease of use
Early 3D technology was designed for engineers and scientists. When applications were first developed for the apparel and footwear industries, the users were designers and merchandisers. These are the “artists” of the industry, and they felt the technology drained their creativity. It had to become easier to use. In fashion, trends change quickly and time is essential; 3D applications for apparel have consequently been greatly simplified, without sacrificing power. Today, users can begin creating within days or even hours.

Applying the Technology

One of the major challenges for any fashion company is ensuring that the fit of a garment is as close as possible to its target customer. In most cases, this implies providing a sample, which means patterns need to be made, fabric cut, pieces sewn together, and products then shipped to the client for a fit session. Some retailers and brands still fly human fit models to Asia or other contractor locations for on-site fit sessions. This is an expensive and lengthy process, which may require several iterations before the garment is fit-approved or eventually rejected from the line. 3D technology at the design stage can help reduce cost and time-to-market, contributing to a more efficient and profitable process by reducing the number of samples required and their associated costs.

Making Prototyping Cost-Effective

How often a company introduces new styles is an important cost factor in development and manufacturing. Some fashion companies have an adoption rate as low as 25%. A single prototype can cost anywhere from $250 to $1,000— and much more when design and development costs are factored in. One fashion company in Germany studied the average cost of dropped styles and reported that each rejection cost more than €1,200. So eliminating the need for thousands of physical prototypes per year and the related shipping charges adds up to very significant savings. Since companies can now decide whether or not to take a product to market using 3D technology without a physical prototype, or fewer prototypes, the cost of rejecting a style (in terms of material, labor, and time) is significantly lowered.

Simulating Fabric Hand

Until recently it has proven very difficult to predict fabric properties accurately and to view the effect of fabric on the body. Today, textile manufacturers test fabrics to gather their physical attributes, such as the bending of the fabric due to its own weight, the friction of the cloth against the body, and stretch in the x and y directions. Shading, transparency, and sheerness of fabrics, and the ability to import trims into the application, also add to the realism of garment simulation. In addition, it is necessary to be able to see the pressure points or stress points where the fabric might be too tight against the body. This information allows a much more realistic drape during the rendering of the finished garment. The subtle differences in various fabrics are immediately apparent and designers can even test new textiles still under development. This facilitates and accelerates the decision-making process, even before a garment sample is manufactured or a strike-off or handloom produced.

Better Pattern Modeling

The most advanced 3D applications available today combine patterns with particular fabric properties and stitching lines to simulate how the fabric will fall or drape. 3D body scanning machines take all the millions of points of a company’s fit model to create an avatar of the same body, which can then be used to accurately predict the ease and tightness of a garment. The user can then adjust the pattern pieces in the 2D pattern-making application and view them in the 3D application to re-simulate and once again check the fit. These rough modifications are easily transferred to paper patterns for fine-tuning. In the past, work done on paper patterns required a multitude of tedious manual adjustments. Fit-checking was a very time-consuming task that would have taken hours, or even days. Today’s 3D applications include automatic functions specifically designed to reduce repetitive tasks and allow trained technical designers to adjust patterns in a matter of minutes.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All


Virtual fit checking has proven to be an efficient way of improving fit quality across the board. Some forward-thinking companies are going a step further by checking the fit of complete size sets virtually. Companies rarely have the time and resources to physically check all the different sizes of a garment during the product development process, and so they frequently skip this important step. Without 3D technology, they often simply check a pattern in a basic size and sometimes in the smallest and largest sizes. This does not always translate into good fit across the board.

Checking patterns in all sizes is crucial, as it has a direct bearing on the fit and quality of the garment, and consequently the consumer’s perception of the brand. This is especially true for childrenswear, as patterns usually have to be altered in the smallest sizes by adding or removing pieces to accommodate the different morphologies of each age group.

Designers in all markets, whether childrenswear, menswear, womenswear, sportswear, or any other kind of apparel, are under the same pressure to produce high-quality products in a limited amount of time. 3D technology offers a realistic, easily accessible solution to the historically arduous task of full-size-range fit checking.

Bridging the Gap Between Design and Development

Improved communication between internal and external merchandising, design, technical design, sourcing, vendors, and customers can significantly reduce overall product development time. Many designers are now comfortable enough with 3D apparel technology to make quick design decisions on how a garment looks in different colors, with different sizes of motifs and logos, and in different fabrics. This technology allows the designer to communicate changes quickly to the pattern maker and see the results within hours, instead of days or weeks.

In turn, the ability to produce close to the market instead of having to plan far in advance allows companies to avoid getting locked into poor designs or create ill-fitting garments. In the same way, today’s 3D applications can be used to create virtual lines or ranges of garments for review and discussion over the Internet by design teams across the globe.

Increased Speed-to-market, Increased Profits

In the quest for an ever-shorter product development cycle, “speed-to-market” is key. Within a lengthy product development process, it is difficult for companies to “chase” fast-selling items with updated variants and complementary items. However, with 3D technology, companies can tweak their designs and approve them digitally, with minimal sample making. This gets the designs into the stores much faster than in the past, enabling companies to capture continuing sales.

The Green Dimension

3D fit technology combined with computer-aided design (CAD) pattern-making may also significantly reduce a company’s carbon footprint. With some companies checking the complete size range of a garment virtually, fewer prototypes have to be cut and sewn. Reducing the millions of prototypes companies manufacture to check fit, color, and the overall look of a garment reduces the energy used for shipping and transport as well as the amount of chemicals used for preparing, washing, dying, and treating fabric, and results in less waste from each operation in that process.

3D: The Apparel Market’s Best Strategic Advantage

Today’s fashion 3D technology has surpassed expectations, becoming easier to use and learn and adapting completely to the specificities of designing apparel.
Getting the right design with the perfect fit to market on time is now more crucial than ever. Development costs are increasing, shipping charges are going up, and mistakes are something that most companies cannot afford. Products have to get to market faster, and they must be products that will sell. With that in mind, regular use of 3D technology in the apparel market is an essential competitive advantage for retailers, brands, and manufacturers alike.

To view the original article click here:

http://www.drapersonline.com/Journals/1/Files/2011/6/15/Whitepaper_3D%20in%20apparel%20design_A%20revolution%20in%20the%20industry.pdf