Digital sampling technologies require brands to change their approach, but could significantly speed up lead times and reduce waste
Samples provide an essential opportunity to analyse what works before putting a design into production. However, the traditional sampling process can be a lengthy one, involving multiple stages. As competition in the fashion industry increases, brands and retailers are looking at ways to reduce lead times, including harnessing new digital sampling technologies. Simplifying the process could also help to improve fit – and therefore brand loyalty – and reduce the industry’s waste.
As a result, software suppliers, universities and future-thinking fashion brands are working on developing a range of new technologies that could allow sampling to take place digitally, through the use of tools such as 3D design, 3D printing or virtual reality.
A lengthy process
“I would be surprised if physical samples exist at all in 10 years’ time for a large proportion of the industry,” says Kellie Hubbard, head of operational excellence at Joules. “The speedy evolution of technologies such as virtual reality and 3D printing mean they will soon become commonplace in our day-to-day lives, including in the workplace.”
Like many of the fashion retailers Drapers speaks to, Hubbard complains that the current sampling system can be frustratingly slow, and costly.
In today’s digital era, most of our focus is now on how technology can improve the process
Kellie Hubbard, Joules
“The time taken to spec, produce, receive, review and possibly remake samples forms a large part of the product development process,” she points out. “In addition, for wholesalers sampling for global showrooms and agents, the volume – and therefore the cost – is not insignificant.
“We are always looking at ways in which we can improve our product development process, and that includes sampling. In today’s digital era, most of our focus is now on how technology can improve the process.”
She says 3D design in particular is “of great interest” to the Joules team: “The positive impact it can have on sample [success rates] and delivering great product to our customers is very exciting. In addition, the evolution and increase of digital showrooms in the wholesale arena is something we will be keeping a close eye on.”
Rhiannon Roberts, senior buyer for clothing at Oliver Bonas, agrees that the traditional sampling process can be slow, and depends on the availability of the fabric in the correct colour or print.
“We are constantly challenging ourselves and our suppliers on how we can shorten [lead times]. One method is to accept samples in the correct fabric base in an available, but incorrect, colour or print,” she says. “We are particularly conscious of not over-sampling with suppliers and keeping hit rates high. Therefore, every sample that is requested is carefully considered. New technologies such as 3D or virtual sampling are interesting, as they would give us an opportunity to see correct colours or prints more quickly in a 3D format rather than the flat CAD [computer-aided design] form.”
Yvonne Heinen-Foudeh, marketing and communications director at software firm Gerber, says “major progress” has been made in 3D design and pattern cutting technology over the past three years, allowing for virtual prototyping on a new scale.
“You can’t bring the number of samples down to zero – and you probably wouldn’t want to – but if you are a big retailer and in the past you showed 50 samples to a buyer, you could bring that down to two,” she explains. “You can email samples to your buyers or customers all over the world, showing them how the fabric will move. If you don’t like the colour or fabric, you can change it. You can simulate all kinds of solutions using avatars.”
“Digitalisation and 3D sampling technology are increasingly enabling a reduction in the amount of manual sampling that is necessary, particularly in fast fashion,” agrees Kevin Almond, lecturer in fashion at the University of Leeds. “Production can effectively take place from the first pattern, but the challenge is ensuring satisfactory fit and construction. The use of technology instead of conventional sampling is disruptive, as it means challenging traditional attitudes and methods, and while the feasibility depends on the type and complexity of the garment, the opportunities for improved efficiency are quite compelling.
“Particularly for fast fashion, the need for speed, cost savings and the potential for data-driven design make 3D sampling attractive. Outputs can also be viewed and checked across different geographic locations quickly. Assuming the training is in place, it also allows for efficient communication with partners in the supply chain, and less reliance on physical samples.”
Over the past two years, premium brand Hugo Boss has been working to reduce its reliance on products developed through sampling.
“There have been several pilot projects where collections have been created purely through digital means,” explains Hjördis Kettenbach, head of corporate communications and arts sponsoring. “Introducing this flexibility earlier in the product development stage has created a space for experimentation, while being mindful of material consumption, as well as reducing costs and time. It also enables us to pick up on – and respond to – the latest trends more quickly.”
Pioneering brands are helping to develop new technologies in the digital sampling space. Swedish brand Atacac – which describes itself as an “ongoing fashion experiment” – digitally designs 3D garments, which it can make available for purchase before they have been put into production.
It prices items dynamically using an algorithm similar to that used for flight tickets, so shoppers pay less for items that are at “pre-order” or “in production” stage. “By doing this we minimise over-production and stock-keeping,” the company says on its site.
Kathryn Bishop, deputy foresight editor of LS:N Global, a division of trend forecaster The Future Laboratory, says there are even more bleeding-edge technologies in the pipeline that could transform sampling in the future.
She points to haptic technology, which can virtually recreate the feel of an object by applying forces such as sound waves or vibrations, to the user. One company exploring the applications of such technology is Ultrahaptics, which was founded in 2013 based on technology developed at the University of Bristol.
“They use sound waves to transmit sensation in the air,” explains Bishop. “Imagine how that could be applied to a velvet texture, or a heavy wool – or new bio-materials and sustainable materials that people aren’t used to using, like pineapple leather. You could get a sense of the fabric itself, virtually. It could mean you don’t have to go to trade shows any more.”
If we can do this over the internet, we could massively reduce lead times, and waste
Stephen Russell, University of Leeds
Industry-led research programme Future Fashion Factory was set up earlier this year to explore ways to introduce this sort of brand-new technology into the mainstream design process, to shorten lead times and reduce waste.
“If you’re designing and manufacturing fabrics with a global customer base, you’re faced with excessive travel, or even sending samples backwards and forwards, which is highly inefficient,” explains Stephen Russell, director of Future Fashion Factory and professor of textile materials and technology at the University of Leeds’ School of Design. “We’re looking at how you could accurately communicate the aesthetic characteristics of fabrics, including even tactile properties, in an immersive way. If we can communicate such information over the internet we could massively reduce lead times and waste, as well as enabling more rapid decision making.”
Not only could digital sampling reduce lead times, it could also have benefits for the environment.
“Traditionally in our industry there is a tendency to over-sample, and there is a lot of wastage as not everything sampled ends up being bought,” says Shailina Parti, buying and merchandising director at Jigsaw. “We need to champion a change within the teams to reduce sampling without compromising the brand and still allowing the choices needed when buying the best range: 3D imaging on shape and prints lets us make decisions without making physical garments before we proceed.”
However, the industry has so far been relatively slow to embrace digital sampling.
Parti admits it is a “big step forward”, but adds: “We need to embrace it and designers need to trust what they see. As the tools become more sophisticated, I see us using this facility [3D imaging] across the board in less than five years.”
Roberts points out that, for Oliver Bonas, any investment in new sampling technologies needs to offer a clear return, “so utility and scale is a factor”.
She adds that there are advantages to doing things the old way: “I don’t think anything can ever replace seeing a sample made up in physical form, as the way fabric reacts in a particular style can never be replicated in virtual form. Even seeing a sample that has been made up in the correct fabric in a photo is not as good as seeing the sample in reality.”
However, Bishop argues that this attitude will change as Generation Z – those born in the mid-1990s to early-2000s, who have grown up with technology – joins the workforce.
She adds: “Some of the technology might not be primed and ready for the textile industry. However, many of them show great potential, and all it will take is for a big brand like Inditex or H&M to invest in them.”
While some of the digital sampling technologies might be in their relative infancy, they offer the opportunity to speed up lead times and reduce waste. Software suppliers are not the only ones looking at how to bring these technologies into the mainstream. Fashion retailers and brands should explore the opportunities to digitalise their sampling processes now, or risk being left behind.