Apparel Development and Technology: Making the Digital Connection

David Grant, Vice President, PLM, Design and Supply Chain Systems, Fast Retailing

It’s no secret that the apparel manufacturing industry has a history of slow adoption rate of new technology. The case can be made that innovative tools have not been available in our space; however, that has changed in recent years with the availability of emerging technologies such as 3D, 3D printing, augmented reality and artificial intelligence. Availability of solutions is no longer an acceptable excuse. The challenge is no longer the technology, it’s making it work for your process, connecting the digital dots.

In the apparel design world, tech overload is a real thing! Place a touchscreen in a design studio and you may find your designers curled up in the corner clutching onto their sketch book. The tools need to enhance, or compliment the creativity and emotion that goes into the development of garments, not replace, or worse, cause fear.

  In the apparel design world, tech overload is a real thing!​  

Where to start?

Before you begin this transformation you need to understand the capability of your business. Questions to ask include: What is the digital IQ of your business teams? How motivated are they to work in a new way? Is there a team that may be more susceptive to a new technology? What areas will provide the most impact in the areas of simplifying and efficiency, resulting in a better cost and overall greater ROI?

Case study: 3D

Once you have an idea of what your teams can handle it’s time to show the benefits of working in a more digital environment. One example today in the apparel industry is the use of 3D software as a supplement for physical garment samples. The use of 3D software for product development is a great place to start. The concept is pretty basic – creating a digital asset versus a physical garment sample saves time and money, reducing costs and ensuring a better product that is often closer to the trend. Initial reaction to this new way of working will be cautious so tread lightly and don’t be discouraged. Propose something different than the elimination of prototype samples; instead, highlight how using 3D versus 2D sketches can help the business make better decisions on what prototype samples to move forward with.

When viewing the line traditionally in 2D it’s hard to know what a Designer versus a Merchandiser versus the CEO are visualizing as the finished garment in their head, 3D collectively brings the same vision to all. Having the same vision allows for the whole business to be on the same page before deciding to consume fabric and produce physical samples. Sample development is a major cost for most apparel houses, sometimes as high as third, behind rent and payroll. Cutting less samples, or making better decisions leads to less “drops” and is an immediate cost savings for the business.

So, about adoption…

You’ve found a solution and have demonstrated the benefits, but the business is still not on board, well, no one said this was going to be easy. Work with a small group to prove out the workflow and cost benefit, ensure they have proper support. The role of IT doesn’t stop after introduction of a new technology, we need to be partners all the way through, constantly discussing ways to improve and enhance the process of using this new technology.

Promote. Promote. Promote.

Don’t forget to promote your successes to the business. There is truth to if you build it they will come, sometimes it just takes a while and communication is key when introducing something new. As IT leaders it is important to be our own public relations when it comes to implementing new technology. Promote this new partnership to all areas of the business, you may be surprised by all the interest, support, and if lucky, more new ideas that will come from within the business. All transformations start with a little buzz, be the one to start the buzz.

Using new technology to change the way you work.

Okay, so you have successfully deployed 3D into your product development process, your fabric team is digitally printing patterns, the 3D assets are being used for virtual merchandising and may even make it to your e-commerce platform. Now, ensure all areas of the business are informed on the end-to-end digital process and how each area impacts the other. Also, be sure to include them all in your story of success. They are ultimately the ones that made it happen!

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Keep in mind that 3D is just one example, but the same strategy goes for integrating artificial intelligence, image recognition or any new technology you are introducing to your business. The digital connection is not just one technology to another technology nor is it department to department. The true connection is when the business embraces working in a new digital way that is making the digital connection.

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