February 19, 1996

Can Computers Guarantee Perfectly Fitted Clothes?

Clothes That Are Cut to Fit


CARY, N.C. -- About half of all Americans buy off-the-rack clothing that doesn't fit well, said researchers at the Technology/Clothing Technology Corp., an apparel industry group. Half of those pay to have their clothing altered; the rest just wear ill-fitting clothes.

To promote a more stylish nation and to preserve some of what is left of the domestic apparel industry, the research group, which is based near Raleigh, N.C., is spending $8.5 million a year to develop a method to make three-dimensional body scans of customers that could be used to produce custom-made clothes.

If manufacturers used the body dimensions of individual customers, standard sizes, which vary from maker to maker anyway, would become obsolete. Along with a custom fit, there would be a premium on speedy delivery of garments. This, the theory goes, would drive manufacturers to keep their plants in the United States rather than waiting months for goods to arrive from factories in East Asia.

The desire for relatively inexpensive custom-made clothes is clear. When Levi Strauss & Co. introduced a computer-assisted measuring system for women's jeans in 1994, the response was sharp, even though such jeans cost $15 more than the standard retail price.

A recent survey by Prof. Nancy Casill of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that customers were willing to pay extra for the scan, if it would ensure properly fitted clothes.

But the Levi system was cumbersome, requiring women to try on several pairs of stock jeans with built-in measuring tapes.

When the new system is tested at a retail store later this year, the scanner is expected to produce a full-body profile in about two seconds, with the measurements encoded on a portable data card or entered into a central depository. Whenever that customer orders clothes, the data can be retrieved to produce a custom-fitted product.

"We are simply trying to do what a professional tailor would do, but without the time and expense," said Joseph W.A. Off, managing director of the technology research company, which calls itself TC2. "Even now, there is $20 to $40 built into the cost of men's suits to cover the cost of alterations."

To use the scanner, a person would strip down to underwear and step into a booth equipped with six light projectors and six video cameras.

Light would be projected through a grate to produce a pattern of horizontal black and white lines on the subject. The projectors would flash four times each, producing 24 images in the video camera. The grates would move after each pass, producing changes in the patterns. The cameras would record height and width; the changing patterns, along with some extrapolation, would produce depth information.

The result would be almost 1.4 million data points in three-dimensional space -- more than enough to define an individual's shape.

Then the numbers would be refined to shape a figure on a computer, from which the essential measurements for clothing would be selected.

"The bicep is the largest part of the arm, so we take the bicep circumference to get the sleeve measurement," said Judson H. Early, the director of research. "But others are not as obvious, which is why we are still working on critical-measurement extraction."

The measurements would be linked to a garment pattern, which would then be modified. The resulting information would be sent to a laser, which would cut the cloth that would be sewn into the final garment.

TC2 officials concede that any move to automated custom clothing would be a struggle against established apparel industry procedures. Cutting a single thickness of cloth for one garment might seem inefficient to companies that cut dozens of layers of cloth at the same time.

But, the researchers said, the automated system could cut inventory costs for retailers and prevent many of the steep end-of-season markdowns that erode their profit margins.

"Everyone looks at the cost of direct labor in apparel," said Peter N. Butenhoff, president of TC2. "But direct labor is only 11 percent of the cost of the garment delivered to customers. Non-value-added handling after manufacture accounts for 27 percent. That is what we are going after."

The researchers envision a much smaller retail space, where most of the stock would consist of samples that customers could examine and touch before placing orders for custom garments based on their body scans. Tied to agile factories, able to switch rapidly from one product to another, the retailer would be able to deliver the custom garment in a few days.

And, because everything would be sold before it was made, steep discounts to clear out inventory would not be necessary.

"The vision is pretty clear and the technology is almost here," Butenhoff said. "As always, the culture change will be the hardest."

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