Last week I had the pleasure of attending the PI Apparel NYC conference. PI stands for product innovation. The conference was actually more focused on process innovation than product innovation. Majority of the attendees are brands and retailers looking to find new ways to compete in a rough retail environment. How are you the one to survive when you know the US is over saturated with stores? Retailers are struggling to compete with lower and lower retail prices. According to OTEXA the average cost per unit of an imported garment has fallen 3.9% in 2017 compared to 2016. Companies haven’t magically figured out how to make garments cheaper. Companies are sacrificing quality to compete on price and customers are starting to realize they only need a certain amount of clothing. The fast fashion model works for some, not for all.
After day one of the conference, I didn’t believe the industry was doing enough. The apparel industry is terribly behind in innovating and utilizing technology. The discussions and speakers I listened to on day one were focused on how they were implementing technology, but no one was discussing changing their traditional business model. Many challenges were discussed, but few offered solutions that would win new customers.
Speakers presented how they were developing product with more digital methods. Fast Retailing Co., Ltd talked about how they built apps so designers and technical designers could work within the PLM system on tablets. Pepkor discussed how they were using 3D prototypes to speed up the traditional development process. Digitizing the development process is great, but other industries have been using 3D modeling and PLM tools for decades. We need to figure out how to use those tools in more innovative ways.
Day two was like starting with a fresh slate! Marleen Vogelaar, founder / CEO, of Ziel Wear bluntly discussed how antiquated the typical apparel supply chain is. Marleen pointed out that there is no valid reason apparel can’t be produced immediately to fill a consumer need or desire instead of the typical 12-18 month lead time.
Craig Crawford, IT strategist, was next up to make the point that if you are not already reaching your customers digitally, then you are already behind. Regardless if the store is a single location boutique or a major US retailer, the product in the stores should also be available on-line. The consumer needs to feel engaged with the brand’s story and message in both the digital and physical store environments.
The conference closed with Moritz Waldemeyer discussing some of his works, which include some fabulous wearable art. I would have loved to hear more about his creative process, but the artistry was wonderfully inspiring.
By the end of day two, I was optimistic. Large brands and retailers are starting to realize they must take risks to move forward. There is also huge opportunities for start-ups to innovate new ways of working and reaching consumers. So what must happen for brands to thrive with all the challenges they are currently facing?
Not only shorter, but FLEXIBLE supply chains
Yes, product can be designed and produced in a week. Yes, product can be shipped to the consumer in two days. We need to think about apparel production in radically new ways. The technology already exists to support a new way of working. If you haven’t seen Olivier Scalabre’s Ted Talk “The Next Manufacturing Revolution is Here”; please do so. Flexible, smaller manufacturers have the potential to pave a new path of growth.
Think like a start-up and drop the legacy culture of the apparel industry
Stop worrying about what someone else is doing and figure out what your customers need or want from you. If it’s not working, pivot. Only Amazon is Amazon. You undoubtedly share customers, but it doesn’t mean the customers want the same exact product or service from you. As the authors of Rework, and founders of 37signals say “Focus on competitors too much and you wind up diluting your own vision.”
Don’t get hung up on what technology is needed. Figure out the business model or process, then find or build the technology. There are oodles of software tools out there that can be adapted to your needs. At Fireflyline, it’s the start-up brands or those outside of the industry that find new and creative ways to use our services. The established brands are using 3D prototypes for the processes we already know lead to success. But some of our favorite projects are from those who want to test the boundaries of what we can accomplish together!
Develop relationships with other companies
You don’t need to buy another company to learn from them and develop synergies. You need a short-term contract and a non-disclosure agreement to start sharing; not a merger. Want to learn how to deliver product in the shortest time possible, why not talk to food delivery start-ups like DoorDash or Postmates? Want to build cool interactive store displays, talk to museums.
Face the fact that innovation is difficult, predictability is easy
Gary Klein dedicates a whole chapter titled “How Organizations Obstruct Insight” in his book “Seeing What Others Don’t”. The premise is that it’s easier to manage the predictable but insight is disruptive. People only claim they want new ideas, but they are naturally more open to those that fall within existing business practices. New ideas can’t be neatly placed on a predictable timeline and budget. Create flexible budgets and timelines for implementing new concepts. Manage the timeline and budget, but build in flexibility.
I left PI Apparel NYC inspired to break down the barriers to innovation. As a small company we have much more flexibility than large corporations. Fireflyline was started to help companies of all sizes incorporate technology and innovation with minimal risk. Hopefully others left the conference inspired to incorporate a culture of innovation within their companies.
Rachel Hentrich has joined Fireflyline, YAY! Rachel learned the 2D side of Optitex at Columbia College of Chicago and is now learning 3D. I’m sure she will have some information to share about that process in the future. Her quote of the day is “It’s eating the cuff”.
We now have a grand total of two employees. The great thing about being a small company is we are lean and flexible. We can shift priorities in the blink of an eye!
Sneaky website updates
You may notice some additional services listed on the website. We have been working on fit improvement projects with clients, but waited to post the services on the website until now. Check out the new page and don’t hesitate to call to learn more. Developing the right fit for the majority of your customers is critical. And even if you have been in the industry for years, topics like grading can throw you for a loop.
Roo the office entertainer
The other new office member is Roo. His official job as a six-month old pup is keeping us entertained. Fuzzy sleeping puppies make the rest of the world melt away. When he isn’t sleeping he is busy keeping track of his people, climbing under desks, or getting in trouble for trying to help with computer work. If there is a typo on the blog, blame Roo.
Technical designers are a connecting thread in the product development process. They spend their days communicating designs to factories and making sure the designers vision is carried out. So what happens to their role as technology allows faster and easier visual communication?
I've heard some thought provoking questions lately around what skills are needed for those looking to start careers in pattern-making or technical design today.
⦁ Are companies looking for individuals with digital pattern-making and 3D design experience?
⦁ How do you identify if someone has the skills to work in Technical Design? What skills are needed for 3D pattern-making or prototyping?
Let's take a step back. Technical design as a career path took hold in the nineties. As companies off-shored garment production, they realized pattern-making could also move overseas. To effectively communicate with overseas pattern-makers a new role emerged. Someone who was responsible for technical communication between US designers and the overseas technical staff. Some pattern-makers moved into these roles, but also individuals with design backgrounds who were comfortable with fit and garment construction.
At the same time, the industry was beginning to take advantage of digital communication. Product specifications could be sent via e-mail in seconds instead of faxed page by page. Those with years of experience hand sketching learned to sketch with Adobe Illustrator. Digital cameras allowed images of fittings and products to be captured and transmitted quickly.
Technical designers today range in responsibilities and skills. Some companies require adept pattern-makers capable of correcting patterns and evaluating grading. Other companies expect technical designers to communicate issues to the factories and allow the factories to determine how to correct the fit problems. Some technical designers work on only fit while others may need a strong knowledge of garment construction, manufacturing methods, quality testing, labeling regulations, color, fabric, and trims.
The technology at each company ranges from creating specifications in Excel to highly customized Product Lifecyle Management (PLM) systems and 3D pattern-making. PLM software has been in wide use for many years. However, many companies have only recently began to leverage the ability to manage tasks or utilize the systems to directly communicate with suppliers. Task notifications can be sent to factories and factories can enter information directly into PLM systems.
A few leading retailers have already learned the advantages of 3D design or pattern-making systems, while others are beginning to pilot systems. WhichPLM has done a great job of recapping excitement around 3D at the recent PI Apparel conference. A few roles as virtual technical designer have emerged, both within corporations and individual firms like Fireflyline. Generally, technical designers and pattern-makers are asked to learn 3D while maintaining their other duties.
Technical design five to ten years from now will look very different from today. The development specification including measurements, construction information, and images will be gone. All this information can be condensed into a 3D file. The desired stitching can be communicated via the 3D image. The measurements, fabric, and color information can be included in the file or integrated with a PLM system. 3D software providers are beginning to form strategic partnerships with PLM providers to accomplish this integration.
Currently, 3D is primarily used as a prototyping tool, but the advantages of designing directly in the system will quickly be learned. Software will evolve to make it easier for designers and pattern-makers to collaborate. Browzwear has two separate systems; V-stitcher to create the 3D prototype from the 2D pattern and Lotta for designers to review stitch details, prints, and embellishments. The role of designer and technical designer may merge. Designers will desire to use 3D modeling tools so they can adjust proportion and scale of style lines, pockets, and prints or graphics directly. Why wait to see a sample and then need to communicate to shift a yoke seam or change a pocket size?
Will a production measurement specification be needed? Perhaps not. Someone may develop an app allowing depth sensing cameras or scanners to measure production garments compared to development garments or specifications.
The best technical designers will be those who find new ways to use the technology available to them. Companies utilizing 3D are investing time in training staff. They are also beginning to partner with colleges to ask that 2D and 3D pattern-making be implemented into the curriculum. Individuals are realizing the breadth of tools available are not only those created for the industry but also the everyday tools they use to communicate. Smart phones, tablets, Skype, and other communication applications allow us to visually communicate with the other side of the world easier than ever.
The next post will focus on training and development of apparel professionals and students to prepare them for this exciting future.