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Going 3D, part 1

The textile, footwear and apparel industry continues to race toward a virtual world driven by digital inputs and virtual outputs. Like an artist carefully using a combination of coloured pencils, paints and specialised brushes to create their artworks, we also need to carefully consider our digital toolsets as part of advancing our 3D workflow and productivity.

This is the first of a five-part introductory series of short articles on the subject of 3D-Technical and aesthetic design and development, with each article aimed as an introduction to one component of the broad subject of 3D.

In the real-world there are several 3D processes that can be managed both in parallel and sequentially, but for the purpose of this article you can assume that we already have our Avatars in place. So, with this in mind, I’m going to start the series with material scanning.  I will be keeping each of the pieces short and at a high-level, providing our readers with the key processes and information to help illuminate the many benefits which come with the adoption of 3D technologies.

My own experience with scanning materials for textiles, footwear & fashion started back in 1985, using the Microdesign 3D/CAD/CAM systems.  Back then we used a Cannon flatbed scanner together with a Canon 12 megapixel camera to capture materials.  We scanned plains, prints, leathers and even bunches of flowers by removing the lid of the scanner and placing a black material over the objects to obtain the scanned images.  There were plenty of workarounds, but to some degree it all worked. The combined system of hardware and software sold for around $250K, though.  And to put this in perspective, today we can deliver similar results with using the average smartphone and laptop as a starter option and at a fraction of the cost! 

When approaching the process of scanning you first need to ask yourself, what is it that we want to achieve by scanning this material, component or person? What is the use-case and what is the quality of the output that we desire from the scan?  Do we need low-resolution for simple 2D flat images (scanner or camera)?  Medium-resolution for internal company protptypes? Or ultra-high-resolution to create 3D materials (high-end scanners) and products that will be destined for marketing and selling – which are often referred to as Virtual-Twins.  

Let’s look at a couple of examples.  Perhaps you’re a textile business that creates a range of textiles and you have a large library of physical materials that you’re considering digitising and ultimately sharing via a graphical image library with your retailers, brands and even independent design customers. If this is the case then adding a graphical channel makes perfect sense, and there are multiple input devices (scanners & cameras or a combination of both linked to the desired resolution) on the market that will help to capture and share your materials online via your own websites or via one of the material platforms.  The Interline will be covering material platforms in more depth this summer.

There are several material scanners on the market that cater to a broad range of requirements – from the very basic smart phone use to the ultra-high-resolution industrial scanners. Although the market is far from saturated in terms of suppliers, the quality of the scanners on offer adequately deliver on the needs of the fashion market.

Adopting 3D opens a vast array of avenues to explore.  First could be allowing customers to view and order physical samples online – accomplished through the use of renders that are indistinguishable from physical products, delivered by the use of ultra-high-resolution scans of materials that can be used upstream and downstream in developing a range of virtual products.  Marketers, designers, product developers and manufacturers of materials, components, trims, garments, footwear, upholstery, home textiles, watches and jewellery should all consider using 3D, and whether the time is now right to introduce 3D into their businesses.

An important decision you face when scanning anything is choosing what dpi (dots per inch) or scanning quality that you will require. Images used in PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) or ERP (Enterprise Resource Management) software as reports or visual reference images are usually in the order of 150 to 500KB in size. The renders taken from the 3D material scanners on the market today usually result in files anywhere from 20 to over 100MB in size. There is a vast amount of data that is stored within each scanned image, both in the quality of the image itself and extra information regarding how the material behaves in different lighting conditions, its depth, bumps and textures. Added to this there’s a wide range of quality settings and options available to the users, and careful decisions need to be considered for each use-case before scanning starts.

The two main file types dominating the fashion & textiles market today are the AxF ‘Appearance eXchange Format’ and U3M files types. Both files types store complex information regarding a material’s characteristics, allowing them to be replicated in a 3D environment. Both file types are supported across an impressive range of applications through applications from 3D design tools to popular CAD (Computer Aided Design) and PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) software.  

The U3M file type or “Unified 3D Material” was developed in an attempt to act as “a bridge between software vendors in the fashion industry with the goal to replace proprietary file formats with a single open-source format.” The open-source nature of U3M and its ability to continue to improve makes it an attractive proposition, and as support for U3M grows improvements to its code will surely follow.  However, whether you use AxF or a U3M format, the quality offered by material scanners in today’s market is impressive.

The scanner market

X-Rite TAC7: The X-Rite TAC7 is one of the two major players in the 3D material scanning market, effectively capturing the characteristics of physical materials from vivid colour and textures to technical characteristics such as gloss, translucency and transparency. The TAC7 uses 32 point light sources to determine the effects of light on the material, 4 cameras capture the reflections from the material to define its characteristics. Filtered light of different colours and structured light also captures more complex spectral colour information and data regarding the depth and texture of materials.

TAC7’s scans can take between 15 to 60 minutes, with the physical samples being used for scanning (Sample size: 300 mm x 220 mm; Height: up to 30 mm Measurement spot: 120 mm diameter, ±3 mm depth of field) up to a maximum of 3 cm in height and also capable of scanning at an optical resolution of 385 to 577 dpi – providing renders of physical samples which are indistinguishable from reality, delivering what is known as the Virtual-Twin.

Vizoo xTex – The Vizoo xTex scanner is another player in the market, their A4 model is used for scanning physical samples of an A4 size much like the TAC7. The Vizoo scanner is extremely sleek and compact, supporting 8 light setups used to capture a range of characteristics from the roughness and transparency to characteristics that allow for accurate physical-based rendering of complex features such as the metallic reflection of a materials. The Vizoo A2 model also allows for a greater capture range and scans from 350 to 750 dpi and the A4 scanner offering  600dpi to 2000dpi. 

Scanning with the Vizoo can be completed in a matter of a few minutes with the xTex software allowing for post-processing of the innovative U3M file. The file can then be taken and applied across every facet of a business offering instant access to a life-like digital material.

Adobe Substance Designer – An unconventional method of 3D material scanning can be achieved through the use of the Adobe Substance Designer software. Using a DIY scanner and lightbox built from a smartphone in combination with Substance Designer, anyone can recreate physical materials accurately in a 3D space.

The Adobe Lightroom application can be used to capture uncompressed images from an IOS or android device which can then be sent to Substance Designer. Images can be combined with an array of pre-designed material formats or characteristics that can be defined from scratch leading to the simulation of precise 3D materials with total control over the entire process allowing for customisation above and beyond the physical characteristics of the true physical material sample.

The results offered by Substance Designer are of remarkable quality and the use of a DIY setup allows for sufficient testing before adopting one of the high-end scanning devices.

3D asset scanning – While scanning of materials for use in 3D design offers the most value to the fashion sector, the scanning of actual assets such as buttons, zipper buckles etc., is another growing requirement. There are numerous scanning tools out there to effectively introduce 3D digital assets into your fashion design and development workflow.

Desktop 3D scanners such as the Matter and Form scanner offer ease of use, portability and quality for a small investment. The Matter and Form scanner has an accuracy of ± 0.1mm, max scan ranges of 25 cm in height and 18 cm in diameter with a max weight of 3 kg. The Scanner utilises 4GB of ram and an i5 GPU to complete high-resolution scans in around 45 minutes or quicker scans in just 7 minutes. The meshing functionality allows for the customisable conversion of a 3D point cloud into a solid object which can then be exported as a .obj file, a standard file format for 3D assets and one of the many standard output files that are used by the leading 3D fashion solutions. Whether it be the Matter and Form scanner or any similar scanners on the market, the scanning of assets is a further avenue which should be explored to draw the full potential out of your 3D workflow.

In conclusion, I’ve focused this article on flat materials and small three-dimensional objects and I hope that this high-level introduction helps to answer some of the basic questions around scanning and how to prepare to start the kind of 3D journey that other brands and retailers have already derived so much value from.  

In my next article in the Going 3D series, we will aim to cover the basics of material standards and characteristics as they relate to virtual design and development. I will also cover further applications of scanning as they relate to body measurements used by retailers, brands and manufacturers – including the kind of personalised scans that can be used for bespoke made-to-order garments.

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