Scanning for the Perfect Fit

The adoption of body scanning technology developed by Taiwanese companies is changing the apparel industry by reducing waste, increasing customer satisfaction, and potentially saving lives.

Upon hearing the term “body scanner,” what likely comes to mind is the high-tech equivalent of a physically invasive search at the airport. Yet Taiwan has been at the forefront of developing body scanners for a diverse range of uses, including in the clothing industry.

One such solution is the Scanatic 360 Body Scanner by TG3D Studio, a Taiwan-founded and Hong Kong-incorporated startup, which uses infrared light – rather than cameras – to scan the body. The company’s technology consists of a scanning apparatus that can be customized to resemble a normal fitting room, as well as a smartphone or tablet app.

Shoppers who use the Scanatic 360 are typically instructed to stand straight with theirs arms spread and hands slightly clenched while an avatar is created. The avatar can then be “dressed” in different clothes on the app to see how the user would look in them.

The implications of this model for the fashion industry could be significant.

For example, Denmark-based circular fashion brand WAIR has developed a platform called Fit Advisor that uses body scanners and artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure that the clothing they produce is better fitted to each body shape, thereby reducing cut-and-sew waste – the excess textile materials generated during the manufacturing process. This is no small feat, given that less than 1% of all textiles produced are circulated back into the clothing production process, according to the UK-based circular economy charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Additionally, since the avatar and the virtual dressing room allow the user to know precisely what size to buy, this technology could help reduce the return rates of apparel purchased online. This could have a significant positive impact on the environment, as U.S.-based management consulting firm McKinsey estimates that 25% of all apparel purchased online is returned, and a substantial share of that ends up in landfills.

For conventional brick-and-mortar shops, information collected by the scanners can be added to a database that recommends the best-fitting clothes to shoppers following an in-store measurement.

“Fashion brands can use the 3D body scanner to improve the fit and size of their garments,” explains Rick Yu, CMO & co-founder of TG3D Studio. “They can further use the data to make an informed purchasing plan and forecast according to geographical region and size distribution to avoid excess inventory after the season ends.”

Yu adds that for custom apparel makers, the 3D body scanner can assist in eliminating human error when taking measurements. Furthermore, they remove the need for multiple fitting sessions, making for faster product delivery and decreasing the alterations of final garments.

Facha Customized Suit, a maker of bespoke men’s suits with stores in Taipei and Taichung, is one of TG3D Studio’s custom apparel clients. Since their scanner was installed in 2013, each new customer who orders a suit from the company uses the scanner, which keeps a record of their measurements. It takes a customer less than 15 minutes on average to register an account, download the app, and complete the scan.

Facha claims that the TG3D Studio’s Scanatic 360 Body Scanner has reduced the store’s refitting rate – the percentage of customers who need to come back for adjustments after their suit is manufactured – from over 30% to less than 5%.

“Customer satisfaction is very high, with a repurchase rate above 80%,” says Pony Fang, master tailor and owner of Facha Customized Suit. “It is very helpful that the body data can be retained, allowing the back-end worker to review it repeatedly.”

Fang also notes that customers are usually interested in how the technology works, although some older customers are initially a bit wary of it. 

The Taiwan government-affiliated Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute (MIC) has observed that body mapping technology has recently become a key topic in brand marketing and that the technology can potentially create positive interactions between retailers and consumers.

MIC Industry Analyst Chen Yu-an points out that at physical stores, body mapping technology can eliminate long waits for fitting rooms and improve floor efficiency as not all colors and sizes need to be on display.

Chen says that creating customized avatars “innovates the shopping experience, assists customers in making purchasing decisions, and reduces the cost of online refunds.” She adds that in Taiwan, the development of body mapping technology has been promising in the online retail industry as the pandemic has increased short-term demand and business opportunities. 

Meanwhile, Taiwan-made body scanners are also being deployed in industrial R&D by organizations such as the Taiwan Textile Research Institute (TTRI). TTRI seeks to help Taiwanese manufacturers of functional garments identify muscle mechanics, perspiration, and heat areas on the human body during exercise.

Taiwan occupies an estimated 70% of the global functional fabrics market, supplying most of the world’s major sports clothing brands, including Nike and Adidas. Functional garments can have one or multiple types of functionality, including temperature and humidity control, fire resistance, wrinkle-freeness, moisture absorption, or electromagnetic shielding.

TTRI’s Chief of the Apparel Section Shen Pei-te explains that the manufacturing of functional garments requires extensive knowledge of the body’s reaction to activity – a process called body mapping. For example, she says, manufacturing a cycling suit requires an understanding of how fabrics with varying degrees of elasticity can be located on hip and thigh muscles to provide support and further reduce the risk of injuries.

“Similarly, cooling yarns and breathable mesh can be used for perspiration and heat spots to effectively release the heat and cool down the body,” she says, noting that this can provide comfort and prevent injuries for athletes.

TTRI has additionally found that body mapping can help with positioning antibacterial and deodorant yarns in the woven fabric to create a breathable mesh design for areas that frequently perspire, such as the underarms. The body mapping technology can also effectively reduce cut-and-sew waste and increase manufacturing efficiency by incorporating seamless weft, circular, and warp knitting techniques.

“In traditional production processes, the manufacturer generates a lot of waste by cutting and sewing various kinds of fabrics with functionality or mesh patterns for different parts of the body,” says Shen. “Seamless knitting techniques, when associated with body mapping technology, can add functionality to clothes by changing weave pattern designs and feeding functional yarns.”

Researchers at Taichung-based Tunghai University have been using Taiwan-made body scanners, including those produced by TG3D, for a variety of purposes. Some of their feats include reducing the rigidity of splints (supportive devices used for broken bones or other injuries), making COVID-19 masks tighter to decrease the risk of spreading the virus, measuring brainwaves with specially designed helmets, and improving the placement of biosensors in functional clothing.

Such sensors, which collect biosignal data such as heart rate and body temperature, must maintain a constant distance from the body, as opposed to dangling loosely in the clothing.

Wang I-Jan, assistant professor at Tunghai University’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Enterprise Information, explains that helmets for motorcyclists or soldiers can only be used for the monitoring of brainwaves in real-life scenarios if they are perfectly fitted to the wearer’s head. Using body scanning in combination with 3D printing, he notes, brings manufacturers closer to designing the perfect helmet.

“Body scanning technology is going to improve greatly in the future with the help of AI and Big Data,” Wang says. “It is clear that the days of us purchasing clothing in S, M, and L sizes are going to be replaced by a new era of designs perfectly fitted to the individual consumer.”