How Digitizing Material Swatches Can Save Both Money and the Environment

Some brands like Adidas and Rothy’s are making shoes out of recycled plastic. Others are turning to wine corks and organic cotton. As sustainability initiatives are accelerating throughout the footwear industry, experts suggest that there is still a lot of waste and inefficiency in the sourcing and production process.

As a result, many companies are embracing digital solutions that allow them to explore materials without searching through pages of swatch books. With digitization, fewer samples need to be made and distributed from the outset; only the final selection of fabrics needs to be looked at in person.

That creates a more sustainable model, where suppliers can cut down on manufacturing costs. For brands, the immediate access to 3D digital files enables a quicker workflow and ensures all internal teams have access to identical copies. But to overhaul the current systems and make digital the norm, mass adoption is needed.

Two platforms are tackling this issue from opposite directions: design and data.

Swatchbook is focusing on building a platform to streamline the design process. Originally a place for brands to scan and upload their own materials for internal collaboration, Swatchbook said it now onboards several suppliers a month to its shared database. Each material is either scanned through Swatchbook’s technology or verified in-house to ensure it meets company standards so that all users have access to quality visuals.

“In order to have meaningful materials that can actually be used in 3D modeling and rendering applications, the [image] quality has to be there,” said Thomas Teger, co-founder and chief product officer at Swatchbook. “Anything that is public-facing from a supplier standpoint, that brands will have access to, has to go through our process.”

Swatchbook has tailored its platform for use across mobile, tablet and desktop devices.
CREDIT: Swatchbook

And visuals are prioritized. Each material is displayed in multiple formats: draped; on a roll; rendered onto a 3D model of the user’s choosing; in a short video of human hands manipulating the fabric; and in the company’s patent-pending 1:1 format. Through the Swatchbook app, any mobile device can display materials true to scale using the 1:1 feature. Users can then apply the fabric to a sample product using augmented reality to gauge suitability.

The app can also be used to scan QR codes, which are generated for every material uploaded to the Swatchbook platform. These can be shared digitally among brand teams for access to the digital file or printed out and attached by suppliers to the select physical materials that do get distributed.

“It’s the swatch book of the future,” said Teger. “Rather than giving you a book with all the samples, why don’t I give you one larger sample and you can use the QR code to pull up all the colors available?”

While the files are compatible with all major 3D design programs, the backend data attached to each material varies. There is no minimum information required by Swatchbook, so suppliers choose which details to include with each upload. Once a material is selected by a design team, brand and supplier must verify details on textile compatibility and availability.

Material Exchange, another digitization platform, aims to eliminate the need for this conversation altogether by providing important information upfront.

“Digitization is all about the right data,” said Andy Polk, SVP at the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America and a board member at Material Exchange. “Yes, a designer can search for materials by filters (type, color, pattern, etc.) but the key is more that the materials team can see the spec sheet upfront and see if the material can be used in production, know if it is in stock and see if the material is compliant before sampling.”

Physical swatches will never be fully replaced, but can be limited to the final stage of decision-making.
CREDIT: Material Exchange

A collaboration between a contingency of brands as well as industry organizations, Material Exchange was created with the goal of modernizing the supply chain. All teams involved in sourcing are equipped with the information they need by accessing the same digital file. Each material in the database can be used by designers for close-up visual assessment; by development teams to understand detailed textile characteristics; and by supply chain teams to track origin and compliance.

Each file’s data can also be integrated with a brand’s product life cycle management software. That removes the need for an employee to input each specification by hand, saving time and money.

“We would rather help suppliers lower their costs so they can spend money on developing the next great material for brands,” said Polk. “Material Exchange is actually giving out scanners to suppliers to help them or just allowing them to use a phone to take pictures.”

Both Material Exchange and Swatchbook believe that through smarter, more-efficient material review, suppliers will be able to control production and respond to what brands are asking for.

“Physical is not going to go away. To make the final decision, you need to have it in your hand and feel it,” said Teger. “But to get to those final options, we feel there is a much better way where you don’t need to rely on hundreds of materials being sent your way every season.”

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