When a North American hard goods retailer was designing its latest line of private-label tools, not a single prototype was shipped between its design team and its manufacturing partners overseas.

Instead, each iteration and innovation was brought to life—whether on-site with the retailer’s designers or those of the vendor—using 3D printers.

3D technology has cut the timeline of the retailer’s design process by as much as two-thirds while also increasing innovation. As its head of design put it, “A picture is worth a thousand words and a prototype is worth a thousand pictures.” Which explains why after using 3D technology for just a couple of years, the retailer already considers it indispensable.

Recent innovations in 3D technology, the tools and processes that allow a product to be visualized, whether on-screen or in physical form, in a three-dimensional format, offer significant benefits to retailers of hard lines and soft lines, as well as consumer product manufacturers: In addition to reduced product development time augmented by the need to make fewer samples, the tech can yield improved communication among designers and manufacturers and, ultimately, reduced costs. The key advantages, though, are greater speed and innovation. 3D technology allows prototypes to be produced more quickly than ever before, enabling retailers and CPG companies to be more responsive to market needs. They are also left with more time to innovate. The net result: better products.

While it’s still early days, costs are dropping and quality is on the rise, which means it won’t be long before 3D technology becomes accessible to the mass market. For proof, look no further than HP’s fall 2013 announcement that it plans to enter the 3D printing market in mid-2014, with CEO Meg Whitman predicting that the technology would explode within the next three years. And Adobe kicked off 2014 by adding 3D printing support to one of its Photoshop offerings, Creative Cloud.

In the meantime, some retailers have already begun to incorporate 3D tech into their core processes. For those who haven’t, the first and most crucial step is to identify which capabilities they will need to develop in order to best take advantage of it. They will need to pilot its use and to make any subsequent necessary adjustments—to both their process and org chart—to support it.

The Current State of 3D Use

For both hard lines and soft lines companies, 3D tools can be leveraged at three stages of a product’s journey: design (3D design/virtual prototyping, 3D body scanning), production (3D printing, 3D manufacturing), and sales and marketing (3D imaging and visualization).

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Compared to other industries, however, use of 3D technology in retail and consumer product manufacturing is still relatively nascent. And although the sophistication level of related 3D printing and design tools is already significant and continues to increase, the retail and CPG industries themselves are only beginning to understand their implications, and to date there are no related industry standards or metrics for their use.

What’s already clear based on the benefits demonstrated by early adopters, however, is that 3D technology will have a profoundly disruptive impact because it offers the thing retailers and CPG manufacturers value most in this increasingly customer-centric marketplace: speed.

Awash with choice, consumers are not only fickle, but they are seeking unique, even personalized products that set them apart from the crowd. Retailers and CPG manufacturers are subsequently under pressure to increase their ability to churn through more product designs and to offer their wares more quickly (and for less cost) than their competitors. Using 3D design technology, they can take on more product iterations at a faster pace because it enables them to produce a broader array of samples that can be quickly turned around and, when necessary, amended in response to early customer/ buyer reactions.

3D design technology also helps to improve communication among different parties, such as technical designers/pattern makers, designers and manufacturers, because they can all be looking at—even working on—the same thing at the same time.

Moreover, such a shared digital view significantly reduces the need to ship physical product as part of the design process, which results in lower overall costs. And the ability to spend more time on innovation and design means retailers can come up with more unique products.

Beyond design, the most commonly used 3D technology in retail and CPG manufacturing is 3D printing, also known as “additive manufacturing” and in some circles—though it’s falling out of favor—“fast prototyping.” It involves building solid, physical objects from CAD or other 3D computer data files. Among the most common methods is what’s known as fused deposition modeling, which, in simple terms, involves successive layers of material being laid down to create a three-dimensional physical shape—ideal for the manufacture of hard goods.

3D printing is getting a lot of press, as it can take the creation of certain products out of the hands of large-scale manufacturers and put it into the hands of consumers, a move being helped by the likes of Microsoft, which has included support for 3D printing in its recently released Windows 8.1 update. But for the most part, such instances remain few and far between.

And when done at scale by large companies, 3D printing remains a costly, time-consuming process. But as the price of 3D printers falls and the quality of printable objects continues to improve, expect to see it become a core part of product development at retail and CPG companies.

Soft Lines

3D CAD software for soft lines retailers—which includes applications such as body scanning, virtualization and simulation—have been adopted by only a handful of companies for designing and prototyping, and on a relatively small scale. But given how impactful the benefits that such technology will have on the industry are, broad adoption is all but inevitable.

When it comes to apparel, using a 3D avatar allows designs to be adapted to extensive variations of body shapes and sizes. A designer can also use the technology to assess fit based on fabric type, for example, to see the way a knit dress will hang, as demonstrated in this Optitex-provided screenshot in Exhibit 2. 3D software comes with an expandable fabric library and allows the designer to easily switch between 2D and 3D pattern-making views.

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It also enables designers to assess the fit of fabrics that incorporate other materials, for example, graphics. Such is the case of one maker of loungewear, sleepwear and undergarments: stretchy, form-fitting garments that often include graphics. Traditionally, there was no way to tell how the graphic would look once the garment was worn—and therefore, where the graphic should be placed. So fitting models would have to be used, over and over and over again, until a sample with the right dimensions was finally produced.

No longer. The designers now use 3D software to size and position the graphics for optimal wearing.

And they produce far fewer physical samples for each garment than ever before, down to two from an average of between three and five. In the process, they’ve cut the time it takes to design and develop garments by an estimated 50%.

The use of 3D printing in soft lines is far more limited. New York City–based startup Continuum Fashion lays claim to the first-ever entirely 3D-printed piece of clothing, the N12 bikini. The “N12” is a reference to the garment’s material, called Nylon 12, which is created using a process known as selective laser sintering (SLS), in which plastic powder is hardened, layer by layer, to make, in this case, a material consisting of thousands of circular plates connected by thin strings. The bikini is subsequently fastened using snaps.

But the N12 bikini is an anomaly and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Currently, soft lines 3D printing consists largely of printing individual apparel components, not entire products or outfits. Where it’s getting the most notable traction is with athletic shoe makers. New Balance, for example, used SLS to create customized spike plates that are placed on the bottom of running shoes in order to improve athletes’ performance.

The company believes that 3D printing is “the future,” CEO Rob DeMartini told the Boston Globe in late October. Mass customization of entirely 3D-printed shoes, he added, is “coming fast and we want to be a part of it.”

But in the meantime, hurdles remain. Among them are:

  • Technological readiness: Most soft lines retailers don’t have the necessary familiarity, skill sets and infrastructure for 3D design, let alone 3D printing
  • High cost: The current cost of setting up 3D printing capability, along with both the direct and indirect cost of producing 3D-printed products, is a substantial barrier for many retailers
  • Consumer preferences: 3D-printed garment components are generally not comfortable to wear due to the hard materials from which they’re made, such as plastic and metal
Hard Lines

Hard lines companies enjoy the same benefits of 3D design tools as soft lines in the form of shorter product development time, the need to make fewer physical samples, increased innovation, better communication among designers and manufacturers, and lower costs. But hard lines companies also apply 3D design tools to other purposes; for example, the actions of moving parts, such as the operation of internal gears and springs in a watch, can be assessed using 3D simulation technology.

Hard lines companies are starting to make good use of 3D printing as well. Mass production remains more a goal than a reality at this juncture, but an increasing number of hard lines companies, particularly those in the automotive, aerospace and medical industries, are using 3D printing to make prototypes, thereby reducing tooling costs and cycle times during the development stage.

In the consumer goods space, 3D printing is being adopted by makers of tools, consumer electronics, packaging and toys. For instance, Mattel, as noted by the Wall Street Journal, utilizes 30 3D printers to make parts for some of its most classic toys, among them Barbie and Hot Wheels.

Developing Internal 3D Capabilities

Retailers of both soft line and hard line goods, along with consumer product manufacturers looking to implement 3D technology, should plan to do so sooner rather than later because— capabilities and costs aside—it will take time to build the skill sets necessary to fully leverage it, skills that extend far beyond those of a technical designer, for the impact of 3D technology will be felt throughout the organization, and as such will require significant change management.

Retailers and CPG manufacturers should start by piloting 3D technology in order to determine how their organization will need to adjust. By tasking a small, lean, cross-functional team (including IT, product development, product design) to drive experimentation and report findings to the C-level, they’ll discover firsthand the changes that will need to be made.

And while many organizations will want to (justifiably) begin with their most complex products so they can test the robustness and sophistication level of 3D design capabilities, a better route is to pilot with simple products that require few modifications (tops that don’t involve a lot of draping, for example). Users should be comfortable with the basics of 3D design technology before working with more complex pieces.

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In addition to deciding on the product(s) with which to pilot the 3D technology, it’s important to understand which organizational groups will be involved and how, exactly, they will be impacted.

Consider, for example, the following groups within a soft lines retailer:

Technical Design
  • 3D design software should be positioned within the organization’s technical design group, as they understand pattern making and have the necessary/most relevant skill sets necessary for 3D design
  • Retailers who did not pilot 3D design without the sponsorship of the technical design group have seen the program fail due to lack of support
  • Some retailers suggest training the majority of technical designers with the technology; others create a position for a dedicated 3D guru who provides assistance to the general team
  • Although designers are generally not involved with the actual 3D design work (at least not currently), they are the main beneficiaries and end audience for the output being created
  • Designers typically don’t have the technical skill set to understand how 3D design works, which can make it difficult for design executives to decide how important the tool is
  • May be involved if technical designers’ computers do not have the hardware capacity to handle processing-heavy design programs
  • IT departments unfamiliar with 3D software could be problematic for apparel retailers adopting 3D pattern making

Indeed, where in the organization 3D technology is positioned is critical to the success of its implementation. One specialty apparel retailer, even after successfully piloting the use of the technology for the production of garment samples, ultimately failed to implement it because it had been assigned to the CAD team, not design or technical design—in other words, the teams that know garment design best.

Elaine Hamblin, manager of technical development in the global innovation research and development department at Levi’s, which is currently piloting the use of 3D technology for design, echoed the importance of assigning oversight of 3D technology in soft lines. “The prerequisite for using 3D systems is that you have to understand how to make patterns,” she said.

That’s because, at the end of the day, 3D technology is a tool. “It will not replace the designer or artisan,” said Simon Collins, dean of fashion at Parsons The New School of Design. “If you’re a bad designer, you’ll still be a bad designer, just faster.”

That being said, the effects of shortened design and manufacturing timelines will be felt throughout the organization, especially with regard to the time it frees up to focus more on innovation. A change management plan, therefore, will be critical to successful adoption and implementation.

3D technology is poised to revolutionize retail, be it hard lines or soft lines, as it enables product development to take place faster, more efficiently, and at a lower cost and higher quality than ever before. But while the decision to adopt 3D technology may be an easy one for retailers to make, successfully implementing 3D tech requires them to have designers with a particular set of skills and the ability to pilot and adapt accordingly, all underpinned by a solid change management plan.

14 March 2014