The original iPod debuts on October 23, 2001. It’s beautiful. It’s a small, pocketable object, and can store up to a thousand songs. Together with iTunes, it soon allows Apple to take over half the (struggling) music market. They make an enormous contribution to the digitization of said market; but music had begun dematerializing long before 2001. The path starts with vinyl and audio cassettes, goes through the CD revolution, and ends up somewhere now, with music and streaming having become synonyms.
The relationship between physical and digital is a constant in modern times, especially after the pandemic, among other things, has forced us to take a second look at it, with the latter becoming — predictably — more and more critical. Today, even objects that would be physical by definition don’t need to be made of matter. To sell a product, it is not mandatory that a tangible copy of it be made, that a prototype be constructed so as to evaluate its craft. Most of the time, a digital copy will do just fine. As a result, the dematerialization process we have seen take place in music is now spilling over to other sectors.
And 3D design is the kingmaker here. 3D technology has evolved enormously in both rendering quality and speed over the past decades; so much so that some virtual models are indistinguishable from reality at first glance. The evolution in image quality and level of detail has become apparent in the world of film, too.
We have gotten used to the level of quality 3D design allows for, and thanks to new, sophisticated software, this technology has become easier to use and thus more widespread in various fields. Fashion has been at the forefront of this adoption, so much so that many companies have entirely rethought their way of designing clothes, shoes, and accessories.
Let’s use some examples. What does to dematerialize and then virtualize a product actually mean?
We then move from these practical examples to more visionary — but nonetheless very real — ones, such as NFTs, which only exist in the digital realm (digital couture firm The Fabricant, for instance, deals with NFTs). We can own a piece of clothing that doesn’t belong to anyone else, but we don’t (can’t!) actually wear it.
Developing a fashion product today means following a rather standardized procedure, which usually goes like this: concept definition, material and color study, product development (with prototypes), fitting. After a few models, the desired result enters production; and only then marketing picks up.
The digitization of a product changes this linear path, turning it into a more circular scheme.
Instead of following a model that essentially requires each step to be completed to move on to the following phase, the digital production begins with rapid prototyping and then moves on from then without a predetermined path. The object can be seen, modeled, changed, fitted, etc., whenever and however necessary.
Beyond that, as said, digital products make the life of the marketing department much easier, as the digital models can be used as a precise reference to create all the necessary material well before things actually go into production.
Physical prototypes simply make this impossible. Each variation becomes a project in and of itself, with all the accompanying costs. Each SKU (different color or material) requires its own prototype.
The processes of dematerialization and digitization are expensive too. What is actually worth digitizing depends on what a company perceives as ‘valuable’; and to understand that, we need to look at the current production model. Where is the value? The product? Sales? Marketing?
For instance, if creating a single garment usually requires the development of three or four prototypes, then eliminating this very step can make the whole process worth it by itself. Production and development become cheaper and faster.
The same goes for companies that perhaps deal with multiple SKUs, whose digital versions can be shown to buyers and clients much more easily — no need for additional shootings. The value generated by digitization and dematerialization changes in accordance with numerous factors, each to be examined individually and per company.
Some firms have changed their approach as a first step toward a larger modernization process; some had already reached an advanced stage. IKEA in the world of furniture represents a well-known brand whose adoption of newer technologies was successful.
The process is predictably complex, and necessitates that five key areas of a company be addressed before being approached. They are:
Digitizing and dematerializing products is a great opportunity to review and pare down the development process, but also a chance to evolve and upgrade certain organizational aspects of the company. It means giving birth to a new approach to work, and — most importantly — a new mindset. Does it make sense to digitize every product to make its development faster? No, most likely; however, it is paramount that firms reflect and understand the value a process of digitization can bring, so as to benefit the most from it. It is also important to start the process today, so as to avoid being unprepared when the next generational shift happens — or, indeed, the customers’ own mindset changes.