How Adidas Used 3D Design to Cut Down on Sample Waste

For years, brands have struggled to understand how to successfully integrate digital content into their businesses.

Even companies that bought into the 3D revolution, forming digital content creation teams and implementing cutting-edge software upgrades, frequently found that those departments were quickly siloed and inefficient.

That doesn’t mean that the value of digital content is in any way lessened by this lack of efficiency, however. In fact, according to Sky Asay, Adidas’ director of design operations, creating high quality, 3D content with a standardized system prior to handing a product off to marketing and sales can have a dramatic effect on sell-in — and can end up becoming a sustainable touch point for a brand.

Asay said that his department began its journey toward this ideal future for Adidas’ digital content back in 2007.

“Our job is to help ensure that those creatives, regardless of their role, have the tools that they need to work effectively and have the capabilities they need to be creative,” Asay explained at PI Apparel, held June 18.

So, in 2007, Adidas began designing and using 3D CAD images to hand off to designers and engineers — basic images by today’s standards but still with enough detail to allow the brand to forego creating a significant portion of the prototypes and samples it might normally need.

3D, digital, physical samples
An example of how digital content can reduce the need for physical samples.
CREDIT: Sourcing Journal

From the beginning, Adidas’ ultimate goal was to eliminate waste. But the brand quickly found that the economics of the strategy extended far beyond sustainability — though it would be some time before it would fully embrace 3D tech.

When Asay joined Adidas, one of his first tasks was to convince leadership that 3D modeling was the future of digital content and put forth an image of a three-dimensional sphere, versus its flat 2D counterpart, to do so.

Asay and his team succeeded in convincing Adidas executives to embrace 3D modeling and the brand moved immediately to implement the technology throughout the business. Yet, there was something missing. Despite the Adidas’ commitment to 3D digital content, the departments that created 3D assets became siloed from the departments that actually incorporated the content into the business.

“We built up teams that would do virtual sampling of [our product],” Asay said. “That [sampling] was happening after the physical samples were created. Over the course of six years, we were able to scale up the number of assets created. By 2017, we were creating 50,000 assets per year. We felt really proud of ourselves.”

However, a closer look at the numbers left Asay and Adidas back at the virtual drawing board.

“As our business was evolving and changing to become closer to the consumer, we started looking at the actual usage of those assets over time,” Asay explained. “What we saw is that even though we had all of these sales samples created from a lot of tears and hard work, we were seeing very minimal usage. Wasting all of that, even if it’s digital — that’s a lot of waste.”

The data showed that Adidas’ sales and marketing teams were often foregoing the usage of virtual product models in favor of ordering physical samples at an alarming rate. Not only that, but there also was no one reason to blame for this inefficiency. Sales teams did not trust the virtual samples. Marketers were handed digital assets too late in the process to make a difference — and worse, retail partners didn’t know how to use them.

Adidas discovered that showcasing products virtually often didn’t provoke the same enthusiasm, even internally, as did physical samples. But Asay explained how the brand landed on three different ways of solving that problem.

Pull 3D assets earlier in the process

The first and most obvious solution to many of the brand’s issues was to prioritize virtual assets at the beginning of the design process — essentially by taking the pens and pencils out of designers hands and handing them laptops instead. Opening up the process to become digitally native helped to change the culture at Adidas when it came to virtual images.

If that isn’t possible, Asay said, try to create the virtual product models in concert with designers. Most of all, Adidas learned that it was important to be flexible and to greenlight smaller projects that could withstand small failures and extended timelines. However, he also admitted that Adidas is still trying to figure out how to make this approach work in a world where speed-to-market is an overriding concern.

Set up an end-to-end digital business model

Although Adidas eventually committed to 3D virtual modeling, its approach toward the technology was decidedly fragmented. Asay said that the brand previously worked in “phases,” focusing intensely on one department’s 3D asset creation or implementation at a time.

“It was really challenging, we were spread thin. We would find that people downstream wouldn’t be thinking about getting the digital content,” Asay noted. “So the pipeline, the tools, the ways that people accessed each other were all getting pretty muddy.”

In response, Adidas created squads with similar purposes in each department. Each squad would have ownership over a portion of the process, creating key influencers for each department that could be informed speakers on the subject during meetings.

Perhaps most important, Adidas created a unified platform for all of its assets — a huge boon to intra-company collaborations and workflow automation.

Highlighting the success of that approach, Asay explained how coders from one department began experimenting with digital design tools and ended up creating a simple program to create midsole designs. Unsure of the practical purpose of such a tool, the assets were then passed down to the design team where they became an important part of the design process.

“If the designers couldn’t use that, we really only lost about two weeks,” he explained.

Connect product exploration to product planning

In the end, digital content creation can only go as far as a product will sell, and Asay recommends using the journey of digital content creation to inform sell-in. The same assets that are useful in-house can be helpful to retailers.

“We take those same assets and put them into context,” Asay explained. “With those assets, you can choose fixtures, you can put your products on racks, folded onto tables — anything that you’d see in a retail context.”

Today, Adidas can provide retailers with everything from simple 2D renderings to high-res 3D images for use in augmented reality applications. Regardless, finding a way to translate the traditional buying experience into three dimensions is definitely a work in process and Asay said there is still work to do when it comes to making the change from real products to virtual versions palatable for retailers.

But, none of that can happen without committing to virtual design.

“Good experience requires good assets,” Asay concluded.

Editor’s Note: This story was reported by FN’s sister magazine Sourcing Journal. For more, visit Sourcingjournal.com.

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