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PVH and Timberland discuss rapid supply chain digitisation at PI Apparel’s Supply Chain Forum

By Rachel Douglass

10 May 2022

Business

Image: PI Apparel Supply Chain Forum Europe 2022, Photo by FashionUnited

As the pandemic shifted the world’s way of working, people and brands were forced to move more and more online, accelerating the need for a revamped supply chain that pushed digitalisation to new extents. This topic was a prominent subject matter at PI Apparel’s Supply Chain Forum Europe, which was hosted in Amsterdam from April 28 to 29.

As part of the event, a panel discussion took place consisting of representatives from big name companies such as Zalando, PVH and Timberland, who particularly focused on digital product creation and the opportunities it presented. The panel was moderated by Ton Wiedenhoff, the executive director of fashion innovations company Alvanon, and Sara Canali, the company’s market development director Italy and Ticino.

While discussing their relationship with 3D implementation, the panellists’ general consensus was that the pandemic had helped to push companies to adopt digitalisation faster than they would have without Covid’s impact. Each outlined that 3D was mostly appreciated in their businesses, and allowed them to connect with their supply chains closely to explore further production possibilities.

Sylwia Szymczyk, a 3D apparel specialist for Timberland, said on the matter: “What we thought was the future had started to be implemented and has become a present - our transition was much faster. While the digital element was already being worked on before the pandemic, Covid just made it faster than it would have been - things that happened over two years would have maybe taken longer to implement.”

She added: “It was just something brands had to do, they were forced to try new technologies and reinvent themselves.”

Digitalisation of the supply chain dependent on customer requirements

A common factor among the participants was that each company had to bend to the requirements of their specific customer and supplier groups, resulting in varying degrees of digital implementation. Much of its application contributed to streamlining supply chain processes and increasing efficiency. For example, Carla Ferreira, the senior director of 3D product development of PVH Europe, said the company was using online fittings to reduce the cost and time of sampling.

Meanwhile, Dorothea Siano, the team lead of product development at Zalando, said a key focus for the German retailer is to make visually appealing product imagery using avatars and optimise size inclusivity for garments that need to be made for a wide range of measurements, which she said is now being looked at from a 3D virtual fitting approach.

Standards were another area touched upon by Siano, who noted a lot of trust was needed in the process before applying digital standards to the supply chain and for a company’s suppliers.

“When talking about standards, it's best practice to differentiate between digital standards and quality standards,” said PVH’s Ferriera, in response to Siano’s concerns. “Digital standards don’t change drastically over time, so you can set them in stone and move on, but quality speaks more to the aesthetic you prefer, the steps taken to get there and the skill level of those that have to follow it. You have to back it up with training support and partnerships to build the quality that you want.”

The necessary digital tools were also something of an issue for some companies, as addressed by Szymczyk from Timberland, who said they were often missing when carrying out digital implementation. She also said there was a lack of people with the relevant digital skills, an imperative part of the process. “We were missing people who were able and willing to implement these changes,” she noted. “The resistance against these new technologies was big, but we also needed to move forward if other companies were too.”

Ferreira seconded Szymczyk’s sentiments, adding that getting people on board with new implementations was one of the biggest challenges for PVH - an issue Ferraira said continues today.

Overcoming mistrust in the digital landscape

Ruben Bakker, the chief technology officer at Tailored Technologies who mostly works with made-to-measure clothing, was one of those that presented some hesitancy towards complete digital adoption. Showing examples of both digital and in-person suit fittings on the presentation screen, Bakker exhibited ways in which digital sampling can actually be more of a hindrance in the production process, often resulting in ill fitting garments.

“When moving to 3D it was very difficult to trust what we were seeing,” he said. “We did a lot of calibration testing to compare what we were seeing on the screen to what we were seeing in real life. To move away from physical fittings, you need to be able to trust this process.”

Bakker noted that subjective garment requirements based on personal taste, like comfort, were difficult to execute in the digital environment, causing him to be wary of these technologies when producing tailor-made clothing. Some software is still only able to provide basic information for a fit, for example, and it can be difficult to accurately adjust them to individual design desires, like the preference for a loose-fit.

Szymczyk countered Bakker’s statement, suggesting that you didn’t need to think of 3D as a translation or collaboration between the physical and the digital, something she said Timberland had considered. Instead, Szymczyk said to see 3D “as an extension of the physical and not a replacement”.

Szymczyk did agree that the designer has to be sure that the 3D and real life fit are exactly the same and underlined the importance of checking a digital sample against a real sample to see the difference.

However, she noted that eventually this digital process will become the norm, adding: “Many people that are studying fashion now are using 3D and digitalisation at the start of their career. I don’t think they are thinking of it as something strange - they will just seamlessly switch between physical fabrics and digitalisation, checking attention to details.”

Bakker also spoke of another challenge Tailored Technologies has faced, which was the representation of fabric in certain online processes, stating that he currently believed that the technology available for this was “not quite there yet”, something Szymczyk agreed with too. Bakker said to overcome this obstacle, he has tried multiple fabric simulation tools and is now utilising very difficult fabrics, like thin nylon, to visualise 3D samples, allowing him to see creases and wrinkles in the design.

Szymczyk also said that fabric simulation processes were not at the final stage of their development, but added: “We are almost there, but it is not perfect. I think it's a matter of time and problem-solving. Maybe digital processes at all sample stages could be possible and we could wholly process an item digitally and sample it in 3D.”