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Report | November 2016

Technology trends in fashion

In addition to significant cost reductions, cloud computing provides apparel companies tremendous flexibility to meet their IT needs.

Technological innovations are revolutionising manufacturing in all industries and apparel manufacturing is no exception: major technical innovations in cloud computing, digital design, collaboration, 3D modeling, data management, production, and digital printing, are enabling apparel makers to achieve significant productivity gains. technology is improving speed and quality while reducing costs, to help get the right products to the right customers, at the right time.

Fashion brands and apparel makers who move early to integrate these technologies into their design, management, and production operations will generate higher margins and gain tremendous competitive advantages in their markets.

Cloud computing

Cloud computing is a major technology trend offering tremendous savings and efficiency benefits for apparel companies. Cloud computing moves a company’s major server hardware and software systems into the cloud, to operate on fast, powerful server networks at professionally managed data centers. Cloud computing allows companies to shed their expensive, on-site server and networking hardware overhead costs, and to significantly reduce software and related implementation, support, and maintenance costs, to move to cloud-based systems costing only a fraction of a company’s in-house IT expense.

In addition to significant cost reductions, cloud computing provides apparel companies tremendous flexibility to meet their IT needs, by allowing companies to flexibly add as many users as needed to expand or reduce computing requirements as their business needs change, without incurring the additional overhead costs of servers, networking hardware, or additional software license fees.

PLM systems

While cloud computing offers great potential for revolutionising the IT requirements of apparel makers, it must be combined with powerful cloud-optimised software to deliver its full potential. One of the most important cloud-based applications for apparel businesses are Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems specially designed for use by fashion and apparel companies. Cloud-based PLM moves line planning, calendar development and project management tasks away from using multiple, haphazardly organised Excel spreadsheets and hard-to-access databases to a readily accessible, easy-to-use system that can be securely accessed by a company’s design, production, sales and financial teams.

By providing immediate access to the latest and most up-to-date product line information and changes, such as colour, size, style or production costs, cloud PLM systems enable a much higher degree of collaboration between everyone inside the company, and with key suppliers, retailers and supply chain partners.

For example, any changes made to any product or line are immediately viewable on the system, to provide everyone with the single version of the truth for making accurate line planning, cost estimation, sales forecast and project management decisions. Every critical step in the apparel manufacturing process, from design, to cost and production estimates, and transmission of sample tech packs and design and production files, occurs more quickly and seamlessly in this integrated, cloud-based PLM system. Compared to traditional, desktop-bound PLM systems, cloud PLM systems make it easy and affordable for apparel manufacturers of all sizes to gain the production, cost, and project management efficiencies that were, until recently, available only to the world’s largest apparel brands.

Mobile devices

Another important new technology trend in the apparel industry is the consumers’ shift to smartphones and mobile devices for online shopping and purchasing. In 2014, the number of mobile-connected devices exceeded the world’s population, according to Cisco Systems. Industry sources report that over 60 per cent of Internet traffic is due to consumers browsing on smartphones and other mobile devices; of this amount, consumers spend about 88 per cent of their time within mobile apps.

The consumers’ shift to mobile devices is especially important for apparel companies and retailers who sell directly to their customers online. While only 15 per cent of all e-commerce transactions today are done using mobile devices, Goldman Sachs estimates this share to increase to over 46 per cent by 2018. This rapid growth makes it imperative for retailers, direct-sales apparel makers, and fashion brands alike to make their products easy to buy and their brands readily accessible over mobile devices. According to Karsten Newbury, VP & GM of Software at Gerber Technology, mobile developers such as Stripe, a creator of mobile solutions that enable easy online purchases and payments within any mobile app or browser, will make it easier for consumers to find, buy, and pay for apparel products of interest on their smartphones and mobile devices, and will make implementation of new mobile purchasing options far easier for online retailers.

The consumers’ shift to mobile devices is also important even for apparel manufacturers who sell only through retailers and not direct to consumers, because manufacturers must still make it easy for mobile users to access, view, and learn more about their brands. Here, making a company’s Website and e-mail communications to consumers “responsive”—that is, easily viewable on the smaller screens of mobile devices—will be a critical minimal requirement for making sure that customers can readily find and easily see the company’s fashions on these devices.

3D design and visualisation

3D design and visualisation features, integrated into every aspect of the apparel process, from design, pattern making, production, and manufacturing, is now an important part of the revolution in digital design and production technology for apparel manufacturers. 3D design capabilities enable designers to visualise their ideas on realistically human body shapes (avatars), to make instant changes to the garment’s construction, sizing, colour, design, or fit, and to scale, zoom, and rotate the on-screen avatar to view these changes from any angle. Once the design is finalised, changes made to the 3D sample are also applied to the 2D patterns to generate pattern files using programmes such as Gerber’s AccuMark pattern design software system.

Another key benefit of 3D design and modeling is the ability to use onscreen visualisation to reduce the number of physical samples required to bring a design to market. According to digital apparel industry magazine WhichPLM, the apparel industry spends $6-8 billion per year on apparel samples alone; it is estimated that 75 per cent of these samples could be developed in digital-only format and sent to production suppliers virtually using digital sample management.

Apparel designers are already gaining major benefits using 3D modeling for sample creation, and in their design process. A senior technical designer of a leading Australian women’s apparel brand, says: “We are saving 1-2 sample production iterations each week, and we are able to be more creative and try new ideas more often.”

While apparel companies derive major benefits using 3D modeling, improvements to 3D visualisation, such as enhanced fabric draping and movement visualisation, will enhance the development process for designers, further shortening design times and improving the productivity savings to be gained from this technology.

In the near future, 3D visualisation will also extend to the consumer side of apparel purchases, with customers being able to visualise the fit of any garment on an avatar (or on themselves in an on-screen representation), and purchase this garment online once they are satisfied with the fit and appearance of their selection. Eventually, 3D modeling technology will make it possible for customers to not only make their selection, but to initiate a custom manufacturing process that transmits apparel manufacturing specifications directly through to the manufacturer to create a garment which has been custom-produced specially for that customer.

The Internet of Things

The history of manufacturing technology has moved through three major technological shifts, from the steam engine to the current age of CNC manufacturing, and is now rapidly moving into a new era of smart automation, generally known as the IoT.

Under IoT, every device in a manufacturing plant is equipped with multiple smart sensors, which monitor the key performance aspects of that device. Each of these sensors can communicate information in real-time to every other connected device, such as production rates, operating status, and condition of key sub-systems.

These intelligent devices can now provide a much higher level of information and interaction to optimise manufacturing efficiencies. For example, in apparel manufacturing, newly “smart” devices, such as spreaders, cutters, and digital fabric printers, can share in-process production data and status updates to increase production line flow and efficiency. Currently, sensors built into apparel manufacturing machines, such as Gerber Technology’s fabric cutters, can monitor the condition of these devices in real-time, to provide this information to service personnel and notify customers when pre-emptive repairs are needed, to avoid production downtime. In the future, these monitoring capabilities will also be made accessible to customers, so they can optimise their own service management, machine operation, and production efficiencies in their lines.

However, in the apparel field, IoT will not be limited just to the factory floor: Embedded sensor technology is also becoming a part of wearable garments, particularly in sports apparel. XelfleX, a wearable fabric technology created by the Altran Group, contains embedded fiber optic threads that turn the garment itself into a powerful sensor array. A XelfleX garment is connected to a smartphone app to record and monitor the wearer’s body movement, and to evaluate key body movements, such as the wearer’s tennis or golf swing.

According to an IoT innovation project report from DHL and Cisco, smart factories utilising the “Internet of Things” are projected to generate $8 trillion in value over the next decade, by driving higher production efficiency in the global supply chain.

Digital fabric printing technology

Controlling inventory costs has always been a major concern for both apparel manufacturers and retailers. In spite of lean manufacturing methods and optimised supply chains, apparel manufacturers still practice a highly inefficient mass manufacturing model, which often either results in excess product inventory, or ends up with inventory shortages for higher-demand products.

Mass manufacturing creates problems throughout the apparel manufacturer’s supply chain, and especially when sourcing patterned fabrics and textiles. Long lead times and relatively high production runs are often required for silkscreen and other traditional fabric printing methods, and despite more accurate sales forecasting methods, apparel manufacturers always bear the extra costs or lost sales which result from producing either too much or too little material for their lines.

Digital fabric printing, which uses a printing process similar to that of desktop digital inkjet printers, is already helping apparel manufacturers move away from mass manufacturing to far more efficient lean inventory and print-to-order processes in apparel production.

Instead of making print fabric orders with outside suppliers based on “best guess” projections or last season’s sales, apparel manufacturers can use digital printing technology to print the minimal amount of material required to meet production or sales demand: No minimum yardage is required for printing, and different patterns for many small lots of fabric can be printed daily on the same printer with minimal changeover and setup costs.

When combined with other digital apparel manufacturing technologies—cloud PLM systems, 3D modeling, automated pattern generation and high-performance spreaders and cutters, digital fabric printing enables apparel manufacturers to become truly lean, made-to-order manufacturers on an end-to-end basis. For example, designers can utilise software like Pointcarré to design a textile, and then to access and reserve available material quantities from the company’s PLM system. Next, they can apply the image file to a pattern using pattern creation systems like Gerber’s AccuMark, which then generates pattern files which are digitally printed, cut, and produced, to manufacture the right amount of products, for the right customers, at the right time. Utilising this new print-on-demand model cuts production lead times, minimises excess materials costs, and optimises product output to meet customer demand.

The cost of many digital printers is also low enough to move many fabric-printing operations in-house. This offers major benefits to apparel manufacturers, especially for sports apparel makers or small-lot custom apparel manufacturers, who must often print and produce small runs of custom-printed team and sports apparel, and for online apparel retailers, who sell products direct to the customer. One such online retailer, for example, has cut their inventory costs by almost two-thirds using digital printing technology, and other direct-to-customer apparel retailers are achieving similar results.

One additional advantage of affordable in-house digital fabric printers is in sample and prototype development. In-house digital printing enables less expensive and more efficient design and in-house production of samples and prototypes, to speed the design iteration process and cut product development time.

New digital technologies

All of these revolutionary digital technologies for the apparel industry, when combined together, will create major new opportunities for apparel manufacturers and fashion brands of all sizes to revolutionise their own design, production, marketing, and sales processes to achieve faster time-to-market, higher production efficiencies, and lower production costs. And just as digital design and manufacturing technologies have transformed other industries, these new technologies are bound to foster the creation of entirely new apparel businesses and brands based on these new platforms, to meet new and as-yet unforeseen customer needs in the apparel field. The proven performance, cost-effectiveness, and growth potential of these six major technologies make it imperative for companies both large and small, in every apparel segment, to begin the process of implementing these new technologies in their companies, to prepare to meet the challenges and opportunities in the lean, highly connected, technology-driven apparel industries of the future.

For further information: www.GerberTechnology.com
Courtesy: Gerber Technology

Digital fabric printing, combined with cloud-based PLM and automated pattern production software, allows apparel companies of all sizes to bring their fabric printing in-house, for optimised, print-on-demand apparel production to minimise inventory costs and accelerate time-to-market.

Cloud-based product lifecycle management (PLM) systems, such as Gerber technology’s YUNIQUEPLM™, give apparel companies of all sizes immediate, affordable access to world-class line planning, calendar development, and project management capabilities.

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