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CAD software is the new black

Fashion industry uses software associated with industrial design to move clothes quicker from sketchbook to sales rack. Software tailor-made for fashion

When you think of computer-aided manufacturing, sexy lingerie is probably not the first thing that comes to mind.

But since the 1990s, fashion companies, including those that make delicates, have been employing the kinds of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing, or CAD/CAM, software previously reserved for architects, designers, and engineers.

While pin-bearing seamstresses and mannequins are still used for couture, the maker of clothing bought off the rack is more likely a piece of software.

The recent introductions of artificial intelligence, better animation, and lifelike avatars are helping fashion companies, faced with increasing demands, to more quickly translate 3D visions into 2D materials.

Teenagers are demanding cheap "fast fashion" to go with their fast food, and there are now six or eight fashion "seasons" put out by some clothing lines that look to bring new clothes into stores every two months, said Holly Beum, director of software product management at Gerber Technology, a subsidiary of the publicly traded Connecticut-based company Gerber Scientific.

"We even call our product life cycle management software 'fashion life cycle management' because fashion differs from every other industry, in that we'll have six seasons in a year with thousands of products," Beum said. "If you're building an airplane, you have one product that takes most of a decade (to design). How many prototypes of an airplane are you really going to make?"

There are two leading companies offering software in this area. Gerber, originally known for its cutter textile machines, lists such clients as Gap, Liz Claiborne, Levi's, Carter's, Sears, Abercrombie & Fitch, and OshKosh. Lectra is a Paris-based company whose clients include Benetton, Calvin Klein, Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Fruit of the Loom, Eddie Bauer, and Gucci.

Lectra and Gerber each offers modular software packages, designed to meet specific fashion industry needs, that generally range between about $3,000 and $20,000 per seat depending on what modules are included. Both companies offer programs that focus on design, 3D prototyping, pattern making, size grading, nesting of the pattern pieces to maximize use of materials, and integration with automated textile-cutting machines.

"The smaller the organization, the more the person is required to do multiple things and use multiple or many of the pieces of software," said Jerry Inman, vice president of marketing for Lectra.

The software lets companies offer buyers more realistic previews on virtual models before things go into prototyping or production. And fashion engineering even extends into the marketing and brand-creation side of the business.

Lectra, for example, in March released Kaledo 3D Trend, an application it developed with Microsoft to work on the Vista operating system. It allows designers to create 3D animated storyboards from their designs complete with virtual models, photos, audio, and video. The company gives away for free, and has seen a lot of interest from fashion design students.

Gerber offers V-Stitcher, a module for its AccuMark CAD program that lets designers evaluate how a piece of clothing will fit on a person by using virtual models. Lectra offers a similar product, Modaris 3D Fit, for letting designers see the fit and movement of a design in 3D and then translating that design into the 2D patterns.

Tailored for globalization

CAM software meshes well with globalization trends. Since the artificial intelligence in pattern-making software requires only the input of measurements, not information on how the garment is to be constructed, manufacturers are free to have their clothes made by labor anywhere in the world, Beum said.

"For example, a pattern development system with the most recent AI will insure that if you have a seam, that the two edges that go into that seam are at 180 degrees," she said.

Other software applications, such as Gerber's Vision Fashion Studio, allow a designer to create original fabric knits or weaves. They then convert that information into direct instructions for a textile mill. The software even accepts scanned fabric images from which to start a new design.

Such fashion-specific software is also helpful when it comes to grading, the process in which a clothing manufacturer creates a specific pattern for each size. While grading is based on a company's size standards, the programs help account for sizing systems and body types that differ from one country to the next.

Lectra and Gerber also have fashion industry-specific nesting software. Nesting, as in any CAM program, determines how best to lay out the parts in order to minimize waste of material.

This fashion software revolution is not restricted to large-scale clothiers. Even the sort of handmade clothing designer you might find on Etsy probably has some programming help.

Other software providers include Colour Matters International, whose CM32 Professional for $4,500 per seat offers weaving, knits and draping plug-ins in addition to clip art and silhouette libraries. The company advertises itself as offering software for small-budget designers, but includes Urban Outfitters, Russell, and Dress Barn among its list of clients. Cad Cam Solutions' FashionCAD, another software application that does pattern making and grading, costs $1,295. PatternMaker Software's PatternMaker Deluxe, for $104, will draft and print a pattern based on the design and measurements entered. And SnapFashun, from the company of the same name, is another silhouette library that works as a plug-in with Adobe Illustrator.

And soon, there may be software for a whole different kind of fashion production: virtual fashion for avatars used in Second Life and other virtual worlds.

Lectra could be considering this type of service for its clients; Lectra Americas President David Rode attended the Moda e Technologia event at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art on Tuesday, where the key presentations involved Second Life and My Virtual Model talking about the interest in brand-name clothing and accessories for avatars. Rode told CNET that he's very interested to see how fashion executives respond to the idea of designing for avatars and extending their visions into the virtual space.