This is the latest installment in FN’s series “Tech Tuesdays.” Each week, FN will take a closer look at an area of digital innovation and explore how these technologies are impacting the way footwear operates. The shoe industry is known for combining heritage craftsmanship with the latest advances: This column will examine that intersection.
Brands have been exploring ways to digitize their operations throughout the full product lifecycle. But the fashion design component is a particularly challenging area to innovate, as it requires the ability to streamline operations with technology while retaining the artists’ artistry. Only now with the latest in 3D technology are brands able to truly overhaul their outdated design processes.
Prior to the emergence of these new tools, designers have been working with 2D sketches and physical models of product. These are well-suited for the creators at those initial design stages, but can present challenges later on in production; the process of translating sketches into uniform blueprints for manufacturers is one that is very vulnerable to error. But the existing design technologies on the market have also been limited in their applications.
“I think that the friction here is traditional CAD software and traditional design software,” said Scott Green, director of product management in the software business unit at 3D Systems. “It hasn’t been historically the most popular software because it has not been historically capable of allowing a conceptual modeller to express their creativity in a way that is easy. So it’s really about finding the right tool for the job to allow creative people to be creative and productive.”
A small number of companies believe that they offer those very tools. Through the use of a solution like Foundry or 3D Systems, brands can gain access to a more intuitive digital design interface. By creating the designs organically within a 3D digital platform, it becomes possible to see immediately what works and what doesn’t; this reduces the number of iterations needed between original sketch and first manufactured sample.
Depending on the platform, designers can also share the workspace with fellow designers so that everyone can collaborate on and have access to the same digital designs, in real-time. Then this file is able to be shared directly with any production partner, ensuring that everyone has access to the most accurate data. This can also make sampling more efficient, both from a time and a resources standpoint.
“When it comes to sampling, you can take that 3D model and create multiple variations in a matter of minutes in a 2.5D space (Colorway),” said Derek Rathel, VP of sales for the design team at Foundry. “You can rapidly iterate in real-time on color, texture, material, and graphics without producing a single physical sample. Of course, a final sample will be made and shipped for approval, but think of all the physical sample rounds you’ve skipped!”
Rathel estimates that a single sample generates about 15 pounds of greenhouse gases (GHG); not only does the piece need to be manufactured but it also need to be shipped to design headquarters. By replacing that system of physical samples with 3D designs, a brand could potentially reduce its environmental impact by thousands of pounds of GHG.
These systems lend themselves particularly well to industries that manufacture large SKUs of product – such as footwear. Because brands can iterate variations on each design within the program, they are also able to create contact sheets of each variation almost instantaneously. However, there are some challenges when introducing a new technology solution into a design team, particularly if previous craftsmanship has been very hands-on.
“The two biggest challenges in implementing a digital product creation (DPC) program is upskilling your workforce and getting buy-in from the wider organization,” said Rathel. “Working in 3D is a new skill set for most; it is important to have a partner who can initially build the needed 3D assets to get you started and help you train your existing workforce.”
Participation across the board is critical. If only some employees are using the software, then there will be minimal overall streamlining and there may be new problems created by having inconsistent processes in place. In order to achieve that mass-adoption, brands should try to get each department to buy-in; not only do these assets benefit designers, but they can also be used in marketing and sales cycles.
“That close working relationship between creativity, modeling and production needs to be in place,” said Green. “You have people designing stuff that can’t be made and that ends up creating dissatisfaction with the process. The communication needs to be there, working in lockstep, in order for work way upstream to actually be useful downstream in production.”