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The Next Dimension

As retailers seek to streamline production processes, 3D technology is coming to the fore.

In today’s market, where the likes of Zara deliver a new collection every six weeks, newness is essential. The modern consumer expects to see fresh product when they walk into a store, and if they don’t they may turn around and leave. However, creating a greater number of ranges costs time and money, part of which includes the need for more samples to be made, leading to a spike in production overheads.

Controlling costs by trimming down the production cycle is key, and as a result many retailers and brands are looking to 3D technology. Drapers teamed up with technology solutions company Lectra to bring together more than 30 retailers from businesses such as Boden, Topshop and Sweaty Betty for a one-day conference to discuss its Modaris 3D smart product development solution for pattern-making, grading and 3D virtual prototyping.

Modaris has been designed so multiple teams can work around a virtual sample before a physical version is produced, allowing key decisions to be made around cut, fit, grading and fabric choice or colour before further investment in the garment.

Speaking to the invited audience at the Soho Hotel in London, Lectra worldwide fashion marketing director Anastasia Charbin said the demand for fast fashion is creating irrational expectations in consumers concerning price and the frequency with which they want to see new product.

With fashion retail now a global business, customers are swamped with choice from domestic and international brands alike. Differentiators such as fit are crucial, so solutions like 3D technology increasingly appeal to retailers seeking to achieve consistency.

“This is huge in the US,” said Charbin. “There is a real interest in 3D. However, if you are producing frequent collections it is hard to get the fit right. Body types differ greatly [across the world] and retailers have to have multiple sets of standards.” She pointed out that 70% of online returns are because of poor fit, and so reducing returns by 1% equates roughly to a 1% rise in net profit.

Lectra director of strategic projects for fashion Judy Gnaedig agreed: “Good fit changes everything - it really is where the stakes are highest. If you get it wrong, you lose out. It is in the product development phase where we have to convert those good ideas, get the costs right and the collections we want, and get our products out to market on time.”

She said 62% of consumers are unhappy with the fit of their clothes, one return in five is because of poor fit and 85% of shoppers will buy from the brand again if the fit is good: “This is an area companies can do better in and they are looking for ways to get fit right because there are huge implications when it goes wrong. There has to be consistency within brands with the product offer. That challenge of really interpreting design ideas comes to the product development team, and one of the key things to get product right is fit.”

China produces half of the world’s clothing - amounting to 44 billion items each year - but its competitive advantage [measured on cost and speed to market] over the UK has reduced to less than 5% as of 2014. It is cheaper to make in Mexico than China, according to business strategy firm Boston Consulting Group. Retailers often manufacture across a number of countries, which can cause communication problems and prove logistically expensive.

“It has become more complex,” Gnaedig said. “Communication and collaboration between teams still remains one of the main challenges. This is exacerbated by changes in the industry such as the acceleration of cycle times, different cycle times for products, and many companies dealing with new product categories they are often not familiar with. They are under pressure and time is a big constraint.”

A 3D technology solution means a reduction in the number of samples and so fewer associated man hours to produce them, as well as reductions in the amount of fabric required, packaging and international delivery costs, and less chance of miscommunication between departments internally or between retailer and factory. Crucially, it also means the manufacturing process can be sped up and products delivered to market quicker.

Tesco’s F&F clothing brand has been using Modaris for around 18 months. Technical clothing director Alan Wragg told attendees between 65% and 70% of its product is developed in-house, “so this type of technology is really required by us”, and “whenever we get a garment that fits we get multiple sales”.

He added: “Because we source from all over the world with both short and long lead times, we want to have the opportunity to trial something from the Near East and then mass produce it in the Far East, or vice versa. So if we give the same style to two manufacturers, we need to have consistency in fit.”

Wragg said whereas in the past supermarket clothing retailers could be a season or two behind with regards to trend, consumers now expect more, and this technology is required so Tesco can turn collections around on a shorter timescale.

He said: “We were using size charts or block patterns that we’d created over the years, and we gave them to our suppliers and they manipulated them to make the style we asked them to. Sometimes we’d get two different-looking samples, and if that wasn’t picked up we could get two very different products. We’re trying to reduce the number of fits and be more accurate.”

Tesco sources from about 27 countries, and Wragg said while it ensures each territory complies with ethical standards, one thing it can’t ensure is that the pattern or sample room technician remains the same, a situation that increases the chances of error: “The more prescriptive we can be, hopefully the more consistent they will become. We have two fully qualified pattern technologists trained on Modaris. Before we started cutting fabric we wanted to make sure we fitted it virtually in our office to the satisfaction of the technical and buying teams.”

He stresses, however, it is essential to have pattern cutters and technologists trained in traditional methods to use the technology, as those skills are necessary for the technology-driven solution to work effectively.

Modaris has enabled F&F to virtually update its kidswear blocks based on the data published in Shape GB’s Children’s Sizing Report in February 2013.

“We were able to change our blocks virtually within six weeks, on all our 27 back-to-school styles. We are the only mass-market retailer that has been able to use the kids’ data [so quickly],” said Wragg.

On some products, Modaris has also helped F&F send virtual patterns direct to the supplier for production. Wragg said: “If we can reduce the number of samples from the two to 1.8 we are at down to 1.2 that will make a massive difference to us.” He added the new system will help F&F be more region-specific in regards to fit and sizing.

Value retailer Matalan started using Modaris in May, and technical manager Jane Pye believes it will become more important in future: “We’ve done a massive project on fit and the next stage is consistency of fit. [Modaris] is going to give us the tool to ensure this, whether we are making it in Bangladesh or India.

“It will give us flexibility and speed to market. Hopefully we will see a reduction in our returns as well as a result of improved fit.”

Debenhams is not using the technology, but pattern room manager Jackie Dunkley agreed the industry is likely to head towards this type of solution: “It will cut down the number of fits required and will speed up the processes. The grading side of 3D [technology] is also very interesting, because you can visually see the effect the adjustments you make will have on a garment.”

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