It was a cool morning and the fog still hasn't cleared when I caught up with Bala Selvarajan, co-founder and Chief Technologist for vPersonalize.com. vPersonalize.com wants consumers to design their own apparel online, on a 3D model and get it custom made as seen visually. A startup from the proverbial garage, vying to capture a piece of your wardrobe!
"So, how would I go about making a custom bag", I start right off. Bala suddenly looks animated! He shows me what he calls the "3D configurator", a web-based application that allows one to design their own Backpack (or a T-shirt for that matter) in a browser and get it custom manufactured "exactly as seen". It seems quite easy, seeing him design the custom bag. A click here, a color there and a slogan and it is done! "If you have your logo or custom artwork, you can upload it here. We are one of the few apps that lets you span images and text across seams" he says while completing the order (the website didn't insist on a registration or login, just a credit card!)
What was it like developing this application?
"Personally, it had been quite an eventful journey for me. From the beginning there were some that felt it was an over-ambitious project and couldn't be done and that I was setting myself up for failure! But, if all the entrepreneurs that succeeded, had one thing in common, it is not backing down in the face of failure - like, almost treating failure as another goal post, a temporary setback on the road to success. There were also a few, that stood by me through everything. It had been both an anxious and exciting time for me. Developing the 3D application itself was only a small step. The real breakthrough came when we automated the pattern generation - basically, take the design on a 3D model and create the individual patterns that can be stitched together to make up the final product".
"It may not be immediately apparent, but our 3D configurator is closely tied to the manufacturing server and every action on the 3D model displays the actual effect it will have in print. For example, a particular image size might cover an entire iPhone case, but the same image might hardly make it halfway on the front of a backpack. This is because, at the specified print resolution, the on-screen size accurately reflects the size it would have in manufacturing. This is not something you would see in most of the configurators out there today (the image would shows up covering the same area on an iphone case or backpack or a pillowcase). This was a big challenge for us. Unless we automated the manufacturing pattern generation, we could not commercialize the technology for use with anything more complex than crew necks T's! We have also filed a patent on this."
How do you take care of dress sizes?
"That was another hard problem to crack. The actual size of a Men's T-shirt, for example, varies by as much as 16 inches from XS to 2XL. This is not a problem if you were only printing on the front or the back - you just leave the additional area blank - but a big problem when you allow images and text to span seams to cover the entire T-shirt. Our second big breakthrough - and in fact, the real step towards commercialization of this technology, came about when we solved this problem."
Is that why you make the user select the size first?
"Yes, of course! The good news is that the user sees exactly how his or her design will look at that size - as compared to a generic image of a T-shirt you see when you select whatever size" he says with a laugh, pointing to the purchase page of a popular online store.
What about the actual manufacturing?
"We have automated the process and the entire workflow is tightly scripted, which means, the individual factory is fungible. We can also work with many different types of materials and printing technologies. We are also working to introduce many new products like baseball hats, flip-flops, pillowcase, bedspreads and more! Presently, resource constraints force us to focus only on areas of high priority, but we will get around to these soon".
"Where to from here?" I ask.
"We are a startup and we intend to stay that way!" he says. He looks at my slightly amused expression and adds with a smile "I meant the culture of innovation, not the size or revenues!".
"There is still a lot of work to be done. We intend to add several new functions like custom sizing, third party image content, etc". We also want to make it easy for any creative person to make their own design and then merchandise the finished T-shirt, bag or flip-flop on, say, Threadless, Polyvore, Ebay or Etsy."
What do you mean by custom size? You are already a "full-custom" shop, right?
"Right now, when we say full-custom, we refer to the ability to print anywhere, including over seams. The design on the T-shirt is full-custom, but the T-shirt itself is not. When we introduce custom sizes, the T-shirt (or the backpack) itself becomes customizable. Why should it always be a size S, M, L or XL? Why can't it be a size Jane or size Dave? One can be shorter, taller or stockier - also it is your prerogative to own a pillow that is 18 inch by 22 inch. With our custom sizing, you can choose the exact width and height of the product and have it custom made. This is in addition to the design customizations we already support."
Do you plan to build a retail brand yourself or would you be open to working with brands?
"It is too long a road to walk alone. We would be more than happy to partner with brands and other e-commerce vendors to help them provide customized products to their customers. We can just provide the white-labeled software, where the pattern generation and workflow back-ends into a brand's existing factories or provide a completely white-labeled software, white-labeled manufacturing and white-labeled logistics, so the customer can focus on products & branding! We are flexible and open to all ideas that make a good business case for both parties".
In the meantime, the server software had completed the pattern generation and he shows me the individual components that will be printed, stitched and assembled to make the bag. "It will take about 2-3 weeks for the bag to get from our garage to your wardrobe!", he says, handing me an order id and an USPS link to track the shipment.
"For me, though, the trip from the garage took several years. Throughout, it has been a voyage through unchartered territories, and oftentimes without a compass! It has been a journey of discovery - of people, ideas, technology and, most importantly, myself"