The pandemic has left people with little choice but depend on online channels to fulfil their buying needs. In such a scenario, standartisation of digital materials with effective 3D design and visualisation is important to render people the perfect end-product garments.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the future of fashion and textile design – accelerating the adoption of 3D technologies for visualisation and technical fit prototyping as more people are designing remotely. While the designs may be digital, the end-product garments are still intended for use by actual people in real life. Therefore, profitable 3D apparel design depends on the realistic simulation of the physical world.

The importance of precise digital materials to 3D design is often underestimated – even though their quality has a huge impact on accurate simulation and fit. Some designers and suppliers mistake this essential investment as a burdensome expense rather than a necessity. Others focus only on colour, drape and texture or purchase libraries that do not match their current collections.

Currently, to digitise all of the popular 3D simulation systems, materials suppliers and digital designers must test and convert many different parameters for each individual fabric. Each 3D design programme has its own parameters and sample sizes, uses different names and units and interprets and represents data differently. Accurate testing is time-consuming, and the results are linked to only a single software system. Even after all this testing, the materials will look and behave differently in each programme (and in reality) if adjustments are not made for each software’s unique algorithm.

The consequences of inaccurate digital materials extend beyond simulation and prototyping – ultimately affecting the physical products customers receive. The issues first arise in manufacturing – as clear communication and physical accuracy of materials is essential to production efficiency, reproducibility and profits. Designing with digital materials that do not behave like reality negatively affects product quality, fit and comfort – leading to lower customer satisfaction and higher return rates – impacting the bottom line. Online returns more than doubled in 2020 from 2019, and a survey of 2,000 eCommerce shoppers reveals that 65 per cent of people made a return because of fit while 39 per cent of people returned products being different than described (39 per cent) and 33 per cent because it appeared different in person than online.

The solution? We need to standardise digital materials to enable suppliers and designers to go from idea to sale faster with efficient and effective 3D design and visualisation. Streamlining involves analysing the different requirements, data formats, units and results of the various 3D systems. This analysis revealed that the test parameters can be narrowed to five essential textile-physical tests to save time and reduce costs: weight, thickness, bending, elongation and fold volume and shape. With this curated list of tests, a conversion has also been developed to ensure consistent visualisation and behaviour across all the different systems.

These adapted input values generate a digital twin that matches the physical material – so people can trust the data, even for complex fabrics. As a result, designers now have access to digital materials that correlate exactly to the fabrics they have chosen for their collections. Suppliers can ensure that their fabrics are represented accurately, no matter what platform the designer is using – securing reproducible results between software systems. In the end, the clothing customers receive should match the digital representation they saw online.

As digital design grows, suppliers and designers must keep the real-life experience top of mind. To truly tap into the power of 3D design, forward-thinking brands and suppliers must prioritise accurate material libraries that truly represent the end-product. Physical swatch books with digital data must be based on trusted testing that is transferable to all systems so that designers are armed with accurate digital representations of the real fabrics.

About the author: Ben Mead is the managing director of Hohenstein Institute America.