At the Re'aD Summit of the German fashion institute DMI, the theme “Digital x less” was all about how digital solutions can prevent overproduction and waste in the fashion industry. From the creation of digital fabric samples, to 3D programmes for simulating visual merchandising, to virtual fittings designed to reduce return rates - the innovations presented earlier this month demonstrate technology's inherent potential for a better fashion industry.
Digital fabrics for a cleaner supply chain
A key theme at the Re'aD Summit was supply chain flexibility and adaptability. Digitising fabric samples and prototypes is essential for this - and can reduce delivery times, collection development costs and the environmental impact.
Digitising fabrics requires different softwares and hardwares. Cologne-based company DMIx has developed a software for colour standards that can be used to digitally convert colours of physical fabrics in a uniform way. This helps avoid errors and misunderstandings between fabric manufacturers, apparel producers and the creative heads, some of whom already work with digitised processes.
Italian fabric manufacturer Marzotto Group uses DMIx’s software to create digital fabric samples. In combination with other services, the Marzotto Group has been able to digitise more than 20 percent of its fabric samples.
Marzotto uses fabric scanners that convert the characteristics of a fabric into a “digital twin,” for example. A special software processes the data so that it can be applied in pattern programmes such as Clo. This bridge creates the opportunity to work digitally at the product development level - a step in the textile production chain that usually has a huge environmental impact.
Luca Bicego, IT specialist at the Marzotto Group, illustrated the advantages of digitised fabrics with an example: if product developers want to offer an article in additional colours and sizes, they can first simulate the versions in their 3D software and even use movement simulation of the digital prototypes to test freedom of movement and wearing comfort. These digital test runs reduce the number of rejects, which would result in unnecessary transport costs and material consumption. In addition, there is the time factor: 3D sampling saves working hours and possibly personnel.
Gary Plunkett, chief commercial officer at PixelPool, a company that offers similar tools, has also noticed this. He reports that instead of several weeks, a customer only needs a few hours to create and release new product offers.
“Every millimetre of fabric saved makes a difference”
Technology company Lectra cited a McKinsey study from 2022: Slightly more than a third of the fashion companies surveyed named digitisation as one of the industry's biggest opportunities, while the same amount rated supply chains, logistics and inventory management the biggest challenges. Yet, the latter could be simplified through digitisation.
Lectra develops software for a range of processes: from planning and sourcing to design, development, production and sales. Lectra's computer programmes allow companies to digitise their processes and thus become more agile. “By digitising their processes, fashion companies can respond more easily to market demand, select fabrics based on sustainable criteria, optimise material costs and quality, and adapt their designs to the latest trends,” said Phillip Muehlenkord, marketing director for Northern and Eastern Europe at Lectra.
The company’s ‘Modaris’ programme digitises pattern creation and speeds up the production process, while another called ‘Quick and Flex Offer’ avoids waste during the cutting stage. According to Muehlenkord, “Every millimetre saved makes a difference if you want to minimise your carbon footprint.”
Companies that have largely used manual processes can save up to 10 percent of their expenses through Lectra's programmes, reported Karin Schiller, presales consultant at Lectra. For companies where digitisation is already well advanced, Schiller still sees potential for cost savings of between 1 and 5 percent. That may not sound like much, but given the amounts in millions that are common in production, it is a considerable amount, she added.
Netherlands-based technology company PixelPool presented 3D-based solutions for retailers. Chief commercial officer Gary Plunkett used one of their customers as an example to explain how 3D technologies can benefit retailers: an international outdoor label is currently using PixelPool's Dtail software programme to test visual merchandising standards and store layout. The tool allows buyers to preview new collections in-store. This allows them to better assess how the collections will perform visually on the sales floor.
Digitisation requires perseverance
What are some of the hurdles that companies should be prepared for when converting to digital processes?
Plunkett touched on a topic that often falls by the wayside in the discussion about digitisation: It only pays off once companies reach a certain level. That means they have a long way to go before restructuring bears fruit. When switching from physical to digitised ways of working, the main complications arise in the workflow, because introducing the first digital items requires expertise as well as equipment.
“Getting to an entirely three-dimensional workflow is not easy,” said Plunkett. For him, the key lies in a realistic starting point, a game plan that is broken down into smaller steps, and decisions based on sound information and knowledge.
According to Plunkett, those fashion companies can implement a 3D-centric working model quickly whose share of cross-seasonal styles ranges from 30 to 60 percent. They can create a 3D library that provides new colours, sizes and details for recurring styles without requiring a great deal of effort or technical expertise. The collection development step is thus redefined and moved from production halls, sampling rounds and transport routes to screens. For fashion companies with frequently changing, complicated styles on the other hand, the changeover takes longer - because they have to enter styles into the 3D programs anew each time.
“The beauty of the whole thing is that you become significantly more efficient, you become significantly faster, and you can get significantly more done at the end of the day,” stated Plunkett, summing up the benefits of digitisation.
Can the metaverse satisfy the urge to consume?
Even though awareness of sustainability among consumers has risen sharply in recent years, this is not yet reflected in consumer behaviour. There is an attitude-behaviour gap that needs to be addressed. Carl Tillessen, chief analyst at German fashion institute DMI, has high hopes for digital fashion. Virtual clothing could serve the enormous interest of younger generations to present themselves fashionably in a certain way online. If the need to consume is satisfied in a digital way, consumers could resort to slow fashion in the real world. Consumption will not stop - but digitisation can create a new form of fashion that has less impact on the environment.
Simone Morlock, head of digital fitting lab Hohenstein, and Beawear CEO Verena Ziegler presented what this brave new world of fitting could look like. Virtual fitting helps optimise fits, which can reduce rejects and return rates.
Morlock reported that currently, 70 percent of end consumers cannot find their size in the market. This has an impact on consumer behaviour: They order several sizes, but may end up not keeping any of the items at all, resulting in high carbon emissions from sending and returning parcels. Virtual fittings can reduce these effects. With Beawear, Ziegler has created a tool that allows consumers to take a 3D scan of their body via smartphone. Thus, users experience an improved shopping experience through sizing advice, and at the same time, this creates well-founded data sets on body shapes that help the industry with more precisely tailoring.
Conclusion: People are the key to digitisation
Re'aD Summit participants seemed to agree on one thing: no matter how good the technologies are, they are only of any use if people get involved.
In this context, Morlock asked the question, “Are the new tools serious solutions or gimmicks?” For her, the crux lies in the industry's willingness to engage with the tools - because “technology needs technical processes” and people initiate these processes.
Rouette was of a similar opinion: “Companies are so busy hiring CROs (corporate responsibility officers), owners and managers say they want digitisation and sustainability,” but actions need to follow words. Christian and Andreas Büdel, managing directors at PB Accessoires, also see this change in perspective as essential: “We have everything in our hands, we have the technology - why shouldn't we use it?”
Gerd Müller-Thomkins, managing director at DMI, summed up the summit findings: “Less must be more in the future!”. That means: “Less” waste from the fashion industry must be achieved through “more” efforts and concrete action by the people working in it.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.de. Edited and translated by Simone Preuss.