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The Future of Softline Sampling is Virtual

Image Source: Optitex

These days, it seems that everything has the word “virtual” in front of it to hype yet another advance in technology.  From virtual reality goggles to virtual money such as Bitcoin, the concept of producing a traditional product using ever-increasing computing power coupled with the internet seems to be everywhere.  To understand the impact of 3D modelling one need only look at 3D printing, the much-hyped technology of the last few years.  While the promise of printing anything and everything on a printer in our living rooms will probably never come to pass, the technology has been aggressively adopted in manufacturing in the form of rapid prototyping and product development to improve time to market for new products and reduce cost.  In many industries, the use of 3D printing for prototyping and R&D has reduced cost and development time more than 90%.

The same 3D modelling that is driving development programs in manufacturing has now come to the fashion world.  And as the technology takes hold within the apparel industry, users are finding that it can be used for a wide range of benefits including product design, development, sampling and online virtual sampling in the form of 3D images for websites.  The technology is shaping up to be just as disruptive to apparel as it has been for other industries.


Advantages of 3D Virtual Sampling

Time is money, and one of the biggest advantages of 3D virtual sampling is faster product development.  Fast fashion as a concept has been on the rise in the last few years with brands focusing on tightening supply chains, finding the right balance in vertical vs horizontal integration and in overall brand management from raw materials through retail.  The concept had already reduced time to market.  But even with fast fashion, development takes time.

The traditional path from concept to final design can take up to two months before bulk production can begin.  The design goes through several iterations including proto sample, fit samples, photo shoot samples, salesman samples, size set samples and pre-production samples.  And each of these sample stages have traditionally been labor, resource and fabric intensive with a high cost from waste as well as sunk costs.

3D virtual sampling allows designers to create 3D virtual samples of garments and to simulate the various sample stages and characteristics traditionally done manually.  Rather than building the samples from real fabric, designs can be presented to manufacturers and design houses in a virtual presentation.  Brands can realize increased efficiency, reduced waste, lower production costs, while still meeting quality standards and specifications consistently.  It also allows changes and adjustments based on customer feedback that can be done rapidly without a restart of the entire development process.

3D apparel design software such as EFI Optitex can be used to produce on screen samples with size and fit adjustments available in both 2 and 3 dimensions.  The program allows immediate viewing of adjustments onscreen and in 3D so new samples are not needed each time.  It is also capable of displaying unique characteristics of different material types, also eliminating the need for different iterations of the design with a variety of materials.  Characteristics such as drape can be simulated for a realistic view.

The program also allows buyers to select different or preferred versions of a design.  Often, companies must deploy an extensive development operation that encompasses large supplies of fabrics and yarns in a large palette of colors to cover anticipated consumer tastes.  With 3D virtual sampling, sizes, colors and prints are limitless and as the designs are virtual, approval throughout a far-flung company stretching across several countries can be sent electronically, drastically reducing adoption time for new designs and color lines.

The use of 3D virtual sampling impacts all stages of product development.  It helps reduce component sample inventories, eliminates the need for new samples to be cut after adjustments are made to suit buyers, it reduces shipping costs and labor and speeds approval.  And when correctly deployed it can impact an entire supply chain revving up fast fashion to a new level.


Drawbacks to 3D Virtual Sampling

Some potential drawbacks to 3D virtual sampling include:


The apparel industry is one of the oldest and most traditional industries in the world. From designers to executives, many prefer to judge a final sample by the “hand” of the fabric and changing to a radical technology that removes that aspect is largely a function of corporate and design studio culture.

Consumers too may find the concept of purchasing a designer fabric produced on computer design rather than physical samples.  New concepts such as “mass customization” may help to sway the public as they realize that their range of selections have increased rather than decreased and once they see no drop off in associated quality.

3D Design Skills


There is currently a gap in skillsets required to operate and utilize 3D modelling programs. Many fashion companies outsource their work and no longer have internal pattern makers.  And while many still have both technical and creative designers, many of those designers may not know how to utilize 3D modelling and may even be hesitant to do so.  Determining who and how to task out responsibility for 3D content is a challenge.

Early Adoption

3D modelling software is expensive, and most programs are sold under licensing arrangements by “seat”. Knowing how many seats to buy depends on the number of people who will be using the programs and using them correctly.  Many smaller fashion houses may struggle with the deployment, expense and upgrade costs.  However, larger brands such as Under Armour, Target, Coach, Victoria’s Secret, Hugo Boss, Maggy London, Phillip Van Heusen, Abercrombie and Fitch and others who have operational scale have already begin to use 3D virtual sampling technology and their size and scale will help them internalize the process compared to smaller players.

Software Limitations

While 3D modelling software is continuously being upgraded as new versions and new computational abilities are developed, there are still desired effects and characteristics that are missing. Current limitations include the lack of ability to create a layering effect affecting the designer’s ability to develop pleats, puffs, padding, etc.


Many large brands have already invested in 3D virtual sampling technology and are realizing its benefits.  But whether the benefits outweigh challenges will ultimately come down to each brand’s unique goals and challenges.



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