Where next for Walmart’s 3D apparel design pilot?
For the uninitiated, 3D design and prototyping software is hailed as a disruptive technology with the potential to boost efficiency and product development workflow, speed decision-making, fuel creativity, and save time and cost. For US retail giant Walmart, it has been fraught with unexpected challenges.
"There were a lot of things behind the scenes that we didn't expect to have to deal with," according to Denise Scott, director of apparel technical design at Walmart.
"We've been doing this a year and we're basically walking right now, so it is a long-term process," she told delegates at the recent Product Innovation Apparel (PI Apparel) event in New York City.
The retailer began an expected one-year pilot in April using Browzwear softwear, but now says this alone is likely to be a one to two year process.
"We've been kind of fumbling around, figuring out what was what, doing some training, then we learned to walk, so we're learning how to use the 3D system. We're figuring out where we're going next, doing some process managing," Scott added.
She said the challenges have come from all areas, from deciding where to use the tool, to getting buy-in from the rest of the team, to unexpected IT and legal implications.
"There's a lot of things to think about as far as how you're going to use the stuff. You think you're going to be here in a year or two years…[but] you're not necessarily going to [end up] where you thought you'd be when you set out to use it."
At the outset, the team's business case for the investment was to increase speed and flexibility in the sample product development cycle, shorten lead time, reduce shipping, and cut the number of samples and sample costs.
While the retailer was also able to turn to Accenture to help compare and evaluate the software companies, Scott advised the eventual decision involved "evaluating what's important to you as a company." For Walmart this included initial cost, yearly licenses, 3D vendor financial stability, realistic levels of visuals, customer service and training, and ease of use. "We had about seven people wade in on this part of the project."
More unfamiliar territory – at least for technical designers – included the legal team's input in thrashing out the agreement between software company and retailer. "It took several weeks if not months to get through that process," Scott said.
Navigating the technology was another consideration for the team, which needed new laptops – "the right laptops" – and a large flatscreen TV; while bringing in third-party software presented security challenges.
Another key part of the project was to build the right team, including buy-in from leadership as well as the people "who are doing this extra thing on top of their day jobs." For Scott this also meant finding team members who were passionate about technology.
And there's the need for trust in the technology itself. "There's been a lot of conversation in the industry about 3D and trust: is the fabrication accurate, does it drape right, does it really look like that when you put it on the body. If you don't have trust from your team it'll collapse."
Other considerations were to find the best fit for the 3D software in Walmart's own product development process.
"Walmart does not create from the ground up. We're not necessarily an innovator," Scott said. The retailer has different avenues when it comes to building product, including creating packages internally, adapting ideas submitted by suppliers, and buying designs direct from suppliers.
"So when we were looking at what was the best 3D software for us, but we also had to look at what our suppliers are going to be doing as well."
With 80% of product developed by suppliers in some cases, and the future shape of the 3D software sector likely to change, the retailer didn't want to insist its suppliers purchased a particular software – but nevertheless needed to know they would still be able to collaborate and operate in its system.
Internally, too, Walmart had to consider who was going to be impacted by the 3D tools – including buyers, product development teams, graphics, design teams and technical design teams.
In terms of product, the pilot was initially narrowed down to just two styles of girls' activewear.
"We'd done all this training with our CAD team, our product development team, our technical design team and we were ready to go into S2, our summer season. We thought we'd be ready for sketch review [the first time a visual is shown to the buyer], but we didn't make it; we didn't get what we needed.
"We had our sample from one supplier but we didn't create internally what we needed to create."
Scott added: "We think we want to [use 3-D] at sketch review but that means we have to do a lot more work at the front end, way earlier, to get there."
So right now the team is process mapping what each person does, in preparation for a dry run in S3, and hopes to present at its sketch review for S4, the holiday season.
"Our pilot goal for our own internal product building is to have a couple of seasons running through active girls' wear, and the other part of that is to have our suppliers create product for us and they want to show that to the buyer in a 3D space."
As well as the sketch review, Walmart's other development milestones require one sample and a CAD of other samples for the assortment definition meetings (ADM); and sampling in all colours at the follow-up assortment finalisation meeting (AFM).
"But we're trying to build trust in the 3D. I'd love for us to use visuals to buy; I'd love for us to eliminate those milestones or cull down on samples used in a milestone," Scott explained.