GLOBAL DESIGN: RECONCILING FORMATS
Byline: Jeanette Hye
NEW YORK — The development of more sophisticated design systems, the continued strength of offshore production and the pressures of operating in the era of just-in-time delivery are forcing apparel manufacturers to find new ways to transmit their designs to overseas factories.
As computer-aided design replaces traditional design methods of drawing fabric prints and garment designs by hand, the way those CAD images are sent to overseas factories, sales offices and customers is also evolving. The days of mailing or faxing hand-drawn images or sending computer disks via commercial carrier could soon be over.
That’s because several new methods of electronic communication are emerging a the choice of leading-edge manufacturers such as Liz Claiborne, L.L. Bean and Cone Mills, who are pioneering the latest in high tech design-to-production methods. Using technology, these companies are finding ways to decrease the turnaround time on designs and speeding up the overall production process.
“Everyone struggles with the time-delay issues,” said Alison Grudier, owner of FabriCAD, a Merchantville, N.J.-based CAD consulting firm.
Grudier pointed out that sending designs via commercial carrier is time-consuming and expensive. This has lead many manufacturers to make a priority out of finding new ways to complete the process more quickly and efficiently.
So far, several technologies are vying for the position of industry standard. The Internet offers a variety of communications options, including e-mail attachments and bulletin board services that make it possible for companies to share design images with their production facilities. There are also ISDN lines, which send information over normal telephone lines, or T1 lines, which transmit information even more quickly.
For the most part, manufacturers are finding that the process of sending their designs is more complicated than simply choosing the most cost-efficient transmission method. As a result, companies are experimenting with myriad combinations of technology and production methods to make the electronic transmission of designs possible.
Liz Claiborne has initiated an entire program within its CAD department called “Liz CADalyst,” which is dedicated to transmitting design images overseas. Using a system from DuPont Esnet, Chadds Ford, Pa., the company can send images of production-ready artwork.
Claiborne is also using this communication technology to make sure garments are produced to fit exactly as intended. Using digital cameras to photograph fit sessions, Liz Claiborne can send real images of the garments overseas. Any flaws in the fit are noted in the picture using text annotations or voiceover instructions. The images do not change the actual product specifications, but serve as a visual guide for production.
The technology has changed the way the company develops its products in a number of ways.
“Almost all our old methods have been revamped and replaced with technology,” said Reuben Butchart, corporate CAD project manager at Claiborne.
He said one of the most notable changes is that the digital transmission of images allows the mill to create digital strike-offs, or test swatches of fabric, which Claiborne’s designers can then view in their offices.
L.L. Bean is also using state-of-the-art technology to send product specifications to its sourcing office in Hong Kong.
Using a wide area network (WAN) to connect two local area networks (LAN), L.L. Bean operates the specification software in its headquarters in Freeport, Maine, and then transmits the images to Hong Kong, where they can be viewed and edited. The technology allows the images to be transmitted back and forth without sending the entire software application, which would take much longer.
“It makes it possible for us to check samples or review changes without having to actually send a sample of the garment,” said Bill Nixon, project manager of L.L. Bean’s information systems department, who pointed out that the specs are sent to the office for reference use and not for actual production.
Likewise, J.C. Penney Co. has also been working on communicating design images that would allow for simultaneous viewing and changing of garment or fabric designs.
Using video-conferencing services available on the Internet, the company recently completed an experimental project in which teams of student designers worked together on a project with Penney’s designers. The retailer plans to begin incorporating the technology, called “whiteboarding,” into its work with suppliers this fall.
Like Penney’s, several companies are looking to tap into the Internet’s design communication potential. Textile manufacturer Cone Mills, for example, will begin using the Internet to exchange images with sales offices and customers so they can work together on designs.
Until now, Cone Mills has been using a modem and dialing into offsite locations to transmit the images. Soon, however, the company will begin using a Web-based solution.
Pat Danahy, Cone’s chief executive officer, said the Greensboro, N.C.-based company has been working on a project with Levi Strauss in which the two can work together on designs using Internet technology. The “Threadwerks” project is a dedicated private Internet site where Cone and Levi’s can share images and make design changes.
Danahy said networks like these could eventually eliminate the need to send images using the modem or other forms of dedicated lines.
“This is definitely where we see this going,” Danahy said.
No matter how successful projects like these are, however, most manufacturers say it will be a long time before designs can be sent without any follow-up of a hard copy.
“This is a very useful way to send designs back and forth, but you still need to send color references,” said Eddie Kreinik, director of marketing at Showbran Graphics, a service bureau here that performs CAD services for clients and will transmit design images to overseas factories.
The color references are necessary because each computer monitor and printer shows colors slightly differently. Kreinik said that even working in color standards, such as those from Pantone, don’t necessarily eliminate that problem.
Working on different design systems can also make it more difficult to transmit designs electronically.
Mary Brannon, director of CAD at Wrangler in Greensboro, N.C., said her company shares images with Cranston Print Works using disks because the firms use different design systems, which makes it difficult to transmit digital images on line.
Technology companies are aware of this problem, and many are working on creating standards or compatible systems to make the integration of the design and production process easier.
For example, Computer Design Inc., a CAD company, and Stork, a printer company, recently agreed to develop products jointly in an effort to create greater compatibility between the design and production ends of the business.
Industry organizations are also championing the cause for standardization of file formats to make exchanging images easier.
CITDA, the Computer Integrated Textile Design Association, estimates that 95 percent of technology vendors are now in compliance with what it has established as the standard file format. CITDA plans to initiate a seal of approval program in which the organization certifies software that meets the agreed-upon industry standards.
“We want to make it possible for people to buy the products for their design capabilities and not worry that communications are going to be an issue,” said Katy Chapman, chairperson of CITDA.