No longer just the stuff of Hollywood movies and Silicon Valley video games, 3D technology is changing the way people do business everywhere. Consider Lori Coulter, a women's swimsuit designer inside the Macy's (M) at the Chesterfield Mall about 30 miles west of St. Louis.
Lori Coulter clients needn't try on piles of swimsuits amid unflattering fluorescent lights in a cramped dressing room. Instead, they discreetly step into a room where the shop uses a scanner to take 140 measurements in less than a minute, then uploads them to a computer, which builds a 3D image and suggests an array of figure-flattering styles. The client chooses a style and pattern, and within as few as three days a custom-made swimsuit is ready to wear.
Lori Coulter is one of the scores of businesses that are being transformed by technology that lets you build and manipulate computerized three-dimensional models. "What we're seeing increasingly is the greater use of computer simulations," says Boyd Davis, a marketing director at Intel (INTC).
The widening use of 3D technology is being aided by advances in computing that render graphics more realistic than ever. Even the most mainstream computers possess 3D graphics capabilities, says Kathleen Maher, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a consulting firm that researches graphics hardware developments. Such advances have been driven by chipmakers including NVIDIA (NVDA), AMD (AMD), and Intel. A typical workstation based on two Intel Xeon processors delivers computing performance roughly equivalent to the fastest supercomputer in the world in 1993, according to Intel. Another catalyst in making 3D computing more mainstream is the video game industry, which has helped push high-end hardware out to consumers, Maher says.
One of the most common applications of 3D computing is what's known as 3D computer-aided design, or CAD, which lets a business create an exact replica or model of a product before it's manufactured. While the automotive and aeronautics industries have worked with 3D computer-aided design for at least two decades, it's now spreading to other industries and smaller companies as it becomes more affordable.
As of this year, the 3D CAD market generated about $3.4 billion, or more than half of the roughly $6 billion CAD market, according to a Jon Peddie Research report in March. Still, 3D computer-aided design users account for just 37% of total computer-aided design users. Until recently, 3D products have been expensive, but that's changing as more mainstream products such as Dassault Systemes' (ENXTPA:DSY) SolidWorks, Siemens'(DB:SIE) Solid Edge, and Autodesk's (ADSK) Inventor become available.
Even as computers become more well-equipped to handle 3D technology, the software for computer-aided design and manufacturing remains taxing for many people. "We need to create better tools," says NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang. "Right now it's not easy for the layman to use." Still, he sees hope in such areas as video game design. In Spore, the new game by Electronic Arts (ERTS), the Spore Creature Creator, which lets players create their own 3D monsters, is quite user-friendly, he says. "Somehow the Spore creators have taken computer-aided design and made it so simple that anyone could do it.
Model on the Runway
Falling prices also make 3D computing more available to a wider range of businesses, such as jewelry, consumer electronics, and consumer products such as tennis shoes. And 3D is taking off in architecture and in medical fields, such as orthopedics and orthodontia.
Apparel businesses like Lori Coulter benefit from 3D software made by an Israeli company called OptiTex that shows a fabric's texture, how it drapes, and how it would move on a 3D model walking down a runway. Fashion designers can now create entire lines virtually before cutting a piece of fabric. Lori Coulter uses the OptiTex software to do prototyping during product development. "We set those patterns in 3D, put them on a mannequin, and simulate the sampling process, and we use various body shapes to see what will fit," says Lori Coulter, owner of the business that bears her name.
OptiTex says that doing this digitally, rather than creating physical samples, can shave weeks off the time it takes to create new designs and get approval to sell them, as designers often need to wait for specific fabrics to arrive. "In the apparel market, there are about six seasons per year, and they run out of time with the prototypes," says Gadi Zadikoff, vice-president for research and development at OptiTex. "They go back and forth a few times and then they just settle, or else it's too late for the season." Aside from Lori Coulter, OptiTex counts Target (TGT), Tommy Hilfiger, and Coach Leather (COH) as clients.
While some within the fashion industry are just now warming to 3D technology, Coulter built her business around it. When she was studying at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis in the late 1990s, she wrote a paper about how new technologies were revolutionizing the retail industry. She became fascinated with body-scanning technology. At about that time her mother was getting ready for a trip to Naples, Fla., and was having trouble finding a swimsuit. "If we could just make a swimsuit that would fit, we'd have a gold mine," she remembers her mother saying. "It's hard for women across the board, even if they're thin and fit and young."
For Coulter, relying on body scanners was a no-brainer. Coulter buys her scanners for about $35,000 a pop from a company called [TC]², which has about 60 in the market, including in three Brooks Brothers (companyid=1380071) locations. The company's biggest customer is BenchMark Clothiers, a men's clothing company based in Little Rock, Ark.
[TC]² is branching into new lines of business, including virtual worlds. A version of its software released in September lets people do a body scan and then create a realistic avatar for themselves in such places as the online virtual world of Second Life. Next year the company hopes to be able to cut the price in half for its body scanners. "We're using consumer-based electronics to make our systems less expensive," says David Bruner, vice-president for technology development at [TC]².
Computer-aided design and manufacturing is also shaping dentistry. About 23,000 dentists worldwide are helping patients get crowns more quickly with a tool called Cerec, a computerized 3D system from dental technology company Sirona that takes a 3D scan of a tooth and automatically manufactures the final crown in one visit. No hassling with a temporary crown for two weeks while waiting for the final one to arrive from the lab. "We think physical impressions will go away eventually and that they will be replaced by 3D intra-oral scanning," says John Sweeney, vice-president for investor relations at Sirona.
Adoption of 3D digital models in architecture, an industry that has been surprisingly slow to catch on, is also gaining traction (BusinessWeek.com, 12/20/06). It started in giant industrial projects such as dams and office buildings and has been pushed down into more mainstream applications like home building. "The efficiency and turnaround times are speeding up dramatically as they're able to go to 3D," says Jon Peddie's Maher.
Even legendary architect Frank Gehry is getting on the 3D bandwagon. The Lou Ruvo Brain Institute in Las Vegas, designed by Gehry, is a health-care facility specializing in research for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's, ALS, and memory disorders. Gehry's project managers used 3D building information-modeling software from Gehry Technologies, the firm Gehry founded in 2002, to bring technology advances to architecture. This model allowed fabricators, erectors, and constructors to view building components layer by layer with a 360-degree view to enable accurate fabrication and construction. The building is expected to be completed in 2009.
In the apparel industry, Coulter thinks that eventually women will be able to order any sort of fitted garment online thanks to 3D technology. "I don't think it will replace ready-to-wear," she says. "It's a luxury product." But one day that just may change too as the technology becomes more widespread, cheaper, and easier to use.