THE AIR FORCE, TC2 EXPLORE FULL-BODY SCANNING
BOLDLY GOING WHERE EVEN LEVI’S HASN’T GONE BEFORE
Byline: MATT NANNERY
NEW YORK — Maybe your tailor gives you something close to a perfect fit. But if you were an airman, the fit of things like a gas mask, a flight suit or night goggles could save your life.
That’s why the Air Force is taking a more critical look at full-body scanning. And the Cary, N.C.-based apparel industry consortium Textile/Clothing Technology Corp. is looking into the custom-apparel applications of full-body scanning too.
Researchers at both hope their projects will be embraced by the apparel industry. If the technology makes it to the malls, they argue, made-to-measure clothing would be within reach of more Americans than ever before. But questions of scanner cost and consumer modesty — shoppers may be unwilling to strip for the scanner — have muddied the outlook.
Homi Patel, Hartmarx president, explains.
“Consumers definitely want custom-fitted clothing,” he said. “There’s no question about that. But will they put up with the practical limitations of these systems? Stripping to your underwear or a skintight bodysuit is one. And will consumers pay for the service? All these things have to be tested.”
TC2 and the Air Force are developing very different scanning systems. The Air Force has opted for a very precise, but very costly option: laser scanning. TC2 is developing a cheaper option that utilizes white light. But, at an estimated $40,000 per installation, even the latter option is looking a little pricy to the financially strapped retail industry.
The Air Force setup utilizes four laser scanning heads to scan the entire body in about 17 seconds. The subject must stand perfectly still during that period and hold his or her breath. Cameras record the scan and transmit the information to a computer, which digitizes shapes using up to two million reference points.
According to Kathy Robinette, director of the CARD (Computerized Anthropometric Research and Design) lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, the Air Force is already using the system to fit essential gear onto helmets. For flight suits, Robinette said the system would be used where it makes sense economically.
“We are not producing clothing using this technology yet,” Robinette added, “though we have used it for helmet-mounted displays and are working on custom oxygen masks for fighter pilots.
“Helmet fit is very important,” she explained. “We hang all kinds of things on them. Night vision goggles for instance. Those goggles only have a 12mm range, less than half an inch, so the goggles have to attach very precisely to the helmet. There’s no room for error. This is not a one-size-fits-all application.”
Flight suits are another story.
“There’s a cost trade-off between off-the-shelf sizes and custom fit,” Robinette said. “This technology is allowing us to use the custom-fit option where feasible. For example, we might be more inclined to use it to create custom flight suits for female pilots then for men because there are so few women pilots that it wouldn’t make sense to create adjustable garments for them. It would be more cost effective to give each female pilot custom-fit gear, so that might be an early application.
While a good number of apparel companies are aware of the Air Force project, Robinette said few have approached the Air Force about it. “The TC2 people are interested in what we’re doing, and Rydell has been talking to us because they produce helmets for the NFL.”
The lasers and scanners the Air Force is using, and the computer and software that control them, cost about $450,000. The Air Force system is a modified version of a scanning setup available from Monterey, Calif.-based Cyberware. She said the Cyberware system is used mostly in the movie industry.
The advanced CAD systems and software Air Force personnel employ to create apparel from the scanner data are extra. If an apparel maker already has a CAD system in place, they can buy a scanning setup from Cyberware for about $410,000, according to Robinette.
The high cost of laser-scanning equipment may be what has kept the apparel industry at bay. And it was cost that prompted TC2 to tackle full-body scanning from another angle, according to Rich Wulpurn, a design engineer at TC2.
TC2 has tried to minimize the cost factor by designing a scanning apparatus that uses white light rather than lasers. And while the TC2 system is not cheap, technology watchers say the upfront cost could be justified if the scanner generates volume business.
“At $40,000, it may easier to justify in men’s tailored clothing,” commented Gay Millson-Whitney, EDI manager at Saks Fifth Avenue. “There are more alterations there.
“Made-to-measure suits is where something like this could do the most good. Cost isn’t the only consideration there. Time is just as important. Men usually have to wait about six weeks for a made-to-measure suit. If this could shave that to 10 days, there might be a market.”
If TC2 systems are eventually installed in retail stores, retailers would prefer that apparel makers paid for them. But Patel said a retailer would have to bring substantial volume to a single producer for any manufacturer to buy into that scheme.
“Whether a manufacturer pays for a system like this depends on the volume of business a retailer is doing,” he said. “But full-body scanning does have practical applications in custom-tailored suits, slacks, sport coats and outerwear.”
And made-to-measure men’s wear is indeed where TC2 is targeting initial applications.
“Initially, this will be a premium concept — unquestionably,” commented Pete Butenhoff, TC2 president. “We are concentrating on technology that would facilitate made-to-measure garments. That means accurate measuring technology coupled with single-ply cutting and agile manufacturing. It’s high-value and high-fashion applications like this that are going to bring some apparel manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.”
In the TC2 prototype, bars of white light are projected onto a subject. Cameras then capture the image. And those photos are fed to a computer that constructs a 3D image based on how the bars wrap on the figure.
Robinette hopes the reasonable projected price of the TC2 system will spur interest in full-body scanning from the apparel industry.
“If the TC2 system is accepted by the apparel industry, that might force the price of the Cyberware system down,” she said. “And, like all new technology, the price of the scanning heads and the computers to control them will likely come down on their own.”
Butenhoff said the apparel industry is debating the issue of cost.
“We’ve had some interest from retailers, but they don’t want to pay for the installations,” he said. “They’d rather the apparel manufacturers foot the bill. But full-body scanning is not very high on the radar of apparel manufacturers.”
TC2 is currently working the bugs out of its system and should have a prototype up and running by the fall. Butenhoff hopes to have a prototype system placed in a retail location sometime early next year.
If the success of Levi Strauss & Co.’s foray into custom-fit women’s jeans is any indication, consumers will pay more for custom-fit clothes.
Levi’s personal pair jeans retail for about $65 and can now be ordered from over 60 stores. Levi’s, however, does not rely on scanners to measure its customers. Levi’s saleswomen take customer measurements the old-fashioned way, before a computer matches those measurements to one of 4,224 patterns, and the jeans are cut and sewn.
“What Levi’s has done says a lot about the viability of these type of ideas,” Millson-Whitney said. “Customers are willing to pay for clothes that are more suited to themselves. Mass customization is a step above current customer service. In the retail industry, we’ve achieved a level of sameness. Retailers are looking for ways to differentiate themselves through service.”