The Fusion of Fashion and Technology
The Prime View had the pleasure to interview Mary McFadden, VP of CAD Products at Gerber Technology, the world leader in providing sophisticated hardware and software systems to automate and more effectively manage the product design and manufacturing process.
Check out our interview to learn about the company, their robust products, and how they are addressing the major challenges and industry needs.
Mary, for the past 30 years, you’ve been driving digital transformation in the fashion and apparel industry. Can you tell us about your professional journey and the greatest challenges you had to face while executing your company’s goals?
I started with Gerber in 1988, and at that time, nobody had home computers. In clothing, to create the pattern shapes that make your clothing, there is a process similar to mechanical or architectural drafting. There are other methods as well, such as draping fabric directly on a dress form. That job is tactile. You might think of a traditional Italian tailor with a tape measure around his neck, and this was the user profile that we needed to embrace using a computer though it was unnatural for them. One of our biggest challenges was getting the product development teams, specifically patternmakers, to use the computer.
In about 1990, we invented a system called Silhouette, which used a 60-inch digitizer with a stylus. That tool allowed the pattern makers to work at full scale and draw on the table, mimicking their manual process. We even had an ink cartridge in the stylus, so they were physically drawing on the paper, and the drawings were captured and displayed in real-time on the monitor. This lets them feel like they were standing at their own drafting table. They could also work with fabric draped on the dress form, lay it on the table, and trace the patterns directly into the computer. You could even take a sewn garment and pin it to the table because it had a pinnable surface that you could stick thumbtacks into the traced patterns from the sewn garment.
The response that we got from the industry was overwhelming. Even today, when the majority of pattern makers are comfortable with CAD (it’s taught in schools, and it’s pervasive in the industry), you can walk into some large high-end brands, and many still have many Silhouette tables in their product development space.
VP of CAD Products Management at Gerber Technology
Historically, the fashion industry wasn’t among the pioneers of digital transformation. Is it changing now? Is the industry more open to using modern tech solutions?
Absolutely. The apparel industry has its own set of development and manufacturing, challenges, and requirements. Gerber has been instrumental in the automation of the industry. We have a great heritage of innovation at Gerber – in the late 1960s, Joseph Gerber invented the technology to cut fabric in high volume, widely used today, across all soft goods industries (Mr. Gerber was awarded the National Medal of Technology, and we have a display at the Smithsonian).
Working with fabric presents its challenges in handling and processing because, unlike metal, it’s not rigid. The solution was to lay the fabric on a bristle bed with an overlay of plastic and use the vacuum to make the material rigid so that you could pass a reciprocating blade through it. This was an innovative solution to a challenging problem.
I see there is an initiative called Gerber Innovation Center. What are the most exciting ideas which were born there?
At Gerber Innovation Center, we’ve created a micro-factory for on-demand manufacturing in New York City.
In our industry, almost everything is created to spec. Some segments like bridal or men’s suits are made to order, but the bulk is mass-produced. We regularly see articles in the news about the environmental impacts of apparel, manufacturing, and the tons of garments in landfills. Therefore, many brands today are considering or already experimenting with local manufacturing on-demand. This is exciting for many reasons.
With on-demand, you only manufacture what has already been purchased. You’re not manufacturing the volumes of goods that may never get sold. Also, you don’t need to anticipate color trends 18 months out into the future. You can offer personalization of garments in terms of fit and style preferences or color and print choices. Consumers can order a personalized garment online, and the customized digital print file is created, and the fabric is digitally printed. We cut and sew it right on site. We can manufacture our garments in as little as an hour.
Gerber Technology has developed many innovative solutions for the industry. Can you tell us what type of individuals are you looking to bring into your company to establish the right culture and foundation for the next 5 years?
That’s a great question. We need people who understand modern technologies and are willing to embrace these technologies and tools and the different business models emerging today.
One area that’s experiencing growth in our industry right now is 3D for design and development. Many apparel companies, regardless of their business model, or profile, are looking to leverage 3D in any number of ways.
In general, the apparel industry has been late to adopt 3D as compared to other industries. It’s a lot of it due to the unique requirements – simulating cloth is much more different than simulating metal or plastic. So, the industry still needs individuals with traditional skills and knowledge about apparel development and manufacturing.
AccuMark is the set of products specifically related to the work you are doing at the company. Maybe you could tell us more about them?
The AccuMark product family is a collection of tools for product development and manufacturing for soft goods industries. We have customers successfully using it in furniture, aerospace, other soft goods, from high fashion to basic denim to costuming or even body armor.
There are multiple modules within the product platform. There’s a 2D CAD for doing the pattern development. There’s also a 3D module to do virtual simulations of garments. There’s a module for grading. If you need to optimize your fabric during the manufacturing process, we have a module for nesting the pattern pieces in an optimal way on the fabric. There is also an add-on product like AccuScan, that converts a raster image into a vector image – as many companies still have libraries of physical patterns in the paper that need to digitize them, AccuScan allows them to quickly take a photograph of the pattern and convert it into CAD and vectorize CAD data.
AccuMark Made to Measure lets you take measurements and style preferences from a consumer, and all that information goes into the ERP system, which can then generate a custom order for your garment that gets pushed all the way through AccuMark and processed to generate the cut data with no human interaction. It’s a fully automated workflow. That is quite a robust solution set for our customers.
Another great platform that your company has developed is called YuniquePLM for fashion businesses. Can you tell us what kind of benefits are there for companies working in fashion?
YuniquePLM is a product lifecycle management tool. The platform is tailored for the apparel development workflow, which has a different process than some other product type. Customers can compile costing information, manufacturing instructions, share information with vendors, and sourcing. It’s been designed specifically for aparallel production workflow and product development.
While some companies are still working with Excel, where you can get files that are out of date, or get multiple versions, so sometimes groups can get out of sync, Yunique PLM allows our customers to share a single version of the truth with their global teams. It ensures everybody’s got the correct copy of the truth and allows seamless data sharing with sourcing teams and vendors for preliminary costing and preparing the right materials and resources for manufacturing.
You might know that Adobe is also widely used in the industry, and our Adobe plug-in allows designers to link and edit their creative assets directly to the platform. We also have integration with our CAD system AccuMark that provides the data needed for calculating costs and manufacturing so that customers can manage concept design, business plans, materials, manufacturing processes all in one integrated solution.
Recently, I came across a report which said that a vast majority of large manufacturers use Gerber Technology tools. If you could share with our audience, what is the secret sauce of that huge success?
Our team at Gerber is all driven by passion, and we strive to meet our customers’ needs. We’re always listening to our customers, and our goal is to design products that meet their unique needs. We offer frequent updates for our products and ensure that we provide top-level support, whether in person or remotely.
Last year, when the PPE (Ed. Personal Protection Equipment) crisis started, we received calls from our customers who wanted to pivot from their traditional manufacturing category, whether t-shirts or denim, to make gowns and masks, which were desperately in need. These manufacturers were getting calls from their local hospitals. Still, they didn’t necessarily have the pattern data, the material, the knowledge about these items’ regulations to start up production.
We immediately established a PPE task force, collected all of the information needed, and made it available to anybody that asked, even if they weren’t Gerber’s customers. In the end, we ended up helping about 1700 customers globally pivot from their regular manufacturing over to making PPEs.
Mary, thank you for driving digital change in the fashion industry through building formidable tools.
Stay tuned for the next interviews!