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Extending PLM: Everything is Designed

July 11, 2012 by Kilara Le in Editorial, FEATURED with


In the third instalment of an exclusive series, business process expert Kilara Le continues to examine the increasingly diverse role that PLM (in both its core and E-PLM forms) plays in the product lifecycle.  This month, Kilara looks at how the creativity and inspiration that have long been the hallmarks of design can be safeguarded and improved upon as PLM begins to extend to all stages of product development.

My last column focused on planning from the financial and merchandising points of view, and examined how the two can be gracefully combined using PLM as the meeting point. This was a continuation of a well-established trend – that of extending the role of PLM throughout the product development lifecycle. This month I would like to delve deeper into the idea that PLM, if insightfully chosen and implemented, can support critical business processes at every stage of product development, from design to delivery.

In order to show how the reach of PLM continues to extend, I have in my previous articles broken down the activities typical of product development into phases.  As I mentioned above, last month we looked at the role that PLM can play in prudent planning by examining how starting a seasonal or collection plan with a financial framework to create designs around is essential, assuming your intention is to make money. The essence of planning is determining what products your target market will actually purchase, and then taking a logical approach to delivering those products at the right price point for them, and the right margin for you. In most cases this will prove to be an ongoing activity, but all seasons and collections, however well-planned, have to start somewhere. As the old adage goes, “the journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step”.

In our case, that first step is design.

At the start of the product development process, financial and merchandise planning are often working in parallel with the trend and design teams, but it is vital to realise that before any entirely new seasons or collections can be planned, their constituent products must first be designed.

A trend board may be a terrific piece of inspiration, but it exists in a single location and represents the ideas and flights of fancy of only a small team of people.In the beginning, like a hazy new celestial star, there are concepts and there are trends, but neither has yet coalesced into a physical garment or even prototype design.  The latter may sound like a fuzzy term for “keeping an eye on the catwalks”, but trend forecasting is a true science, and the analysis that results from it is considered to be an absolutely vital component in modern product development. The world of trend prediction is an analytic yet intuitive meshing of popular culture, international events and clairvoyance that utilises a keen eye for global visual and behavioral patterns. Keeping your finger on the pulse, so to speak, of who your customer is and will be, a season or year from today, is the key to predicting what they will want, before they know they do.  Already we can begin to see how closely intertwined trend analysis and planning have become, with one science feeding the other in order to deliver products that are both competitively priced and artfully chosen for a specific target market.

There are quite a few trend forecasting groups and websites out there, many of whom do an amazing job of predicting the future of silhouettes, design details, fabrics and colors. Many companies subscribe to these types of services, but also rely on their own design and merchandising teams to scan the local streets, travel and trend spot, and monitor social media sites to hit on the right mix for their market. This generally leads to the wonderful act of creating trend boards. These may consist of magazine tear sheets, digital images, printouts from websites, bits of paper and cloth, objects with interesting finishes, vintage items, or competitor’s comparative products in an effort to make sense of all the possibilities.  Encompassing all of the art and the science of trend and style analysis, it is easy to see why designers so value these boards, and I believe that the relatively staid design of much fashion software has been one of the reasons that the industry has been slow to adopt so many promising product development technologies.

Despite the perceived limitations of software, visual communication of a concept is a must to get the desired product results faster.  A trend board may be a terrific piece of inspiration, but it exists in a single location and represents the ideas and flights of fancy of only a small team of people.  The ability of today’s PLM solutions to act as central repositories for images and inspiration has made them valuable tools for trend and design processes. Photos and scans of trend boards and the items on them are an essential first step to making the products envisioned from their influence a reality, and provided these are properly catalogued within a PLM solution, they neatly avoid the difficulties inherent with communicating a complicated, singular vision using more traditional tools.

Digital representation allows everyone to have his or her own window into the grand vision.

As well as acting as centrally-accessible storage for these images, PLM allows them to be associated, or linked, to related styles or collections with additional comments, to better communicate the desired look or feel of the products.  They can also be referenced or updated as the responsibility for further development is passed onto other teams. I have heard so many times that concepts get “lost in translation” either between design, technical design and sourcing or with agents or manufacturers overseas. Even when painstakingly put together, internal trend books are still not distributed to all concerned parties, or each person keeps their own notes on updates in their own book and these are not communicated. By moving a trend board into PLM, its functionality is not just replicated, but actually enhanced.  End users at every stage of the product lifecycle can attach comments, notes and other qualitative data to what would otherwise have remained a quite inaccessible (in more ways than one) medium.

So many companies create wonderful, comprehensive design and trend information, only to discard it the next season.

There are, though, companies who are concerned about adopting this approach.  Many organisations distribute information internally on a ‘need to know’ basis, and a common concern is whether or not these inspirational designs and sketches can be kept in a section of the PLM database that is not accessible to others in the company. This is a simple issue to overcome, as using the user and user group level permissions available in most PLM systems will allow for the teams to control access to images and messages.

Fabric swatches are another important item that can benefit from organization within a PLM system. They often get misplaced, and tend to get smaller and smaller as they are cut up and distributed to more people.  Having a high-resolution scan of the original fabric swatch will help with initial sourcing. Then the scan can quickly linked to a more detailed PLM material record once a fabric has been accepted into the line. Later in the process, having a scan of the original inspiration linked to the final approved material record will aid internally with samples and even through to QC when the product is actually delivered.  Similarly, trend boards and other inspiration that were considered at one point in time and subsequently shelved can be easily revisited provided they are properly catalogued. As the saying goes: everything gets recycled in the fashion industry, so what is not quite right this season may be the bestseller in a year’s time.

As we can see, digitising and communicating within PLM from the get-go about design decisions and direction makes things more accessible for all involved, but does require some discipline.

By moving a trend board into PLM, its functionality is not just replicated, but actually enhanced. 

Depending on company standards and designers’ preferences, sketches are often done initially by hand and then refined digitally in sketching software such as the industry standard, Adobe Illustrator.  Some designers prefer to sketch digitally from the start, but either way, or a mix of the two, is a very viable option. For sketches that will be shared or referenced as technical sketches, it makes sense to eventually draw them digitally in vector format, both for the sake of clarity and so the sketches can more easily be updated or tweaked. Various PLM systems can automatically upload native Adobe file formats, but scripts can also be written to automatically convert these into more common formats such as .jpeg. Another example of a script that automates a process is one that updates images linked to specific styles when a designer updates a sketch in a specific folder. This not only negates the issue of people forgetting to upload the latest version of a sketch, but very often updating images into PLM systems is a multi-step process and perceived as an inefficient use of time by creative talent.

Since color palettes and standards are typically determined during the concept and planning processes, these are yet a further example of the kind of information that should be retained in PLM, and the importance of doing so in an organized  fashion.  Unless everyone in a given company calibrates their computer screens, they will not show a consistent or an accurate representation of the actual physical color, so obviously an exact visual point of reference is unreliable, though close enough to distinguish color family.  Your PLM system should be capable of referencing each color on a cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) color level as well as red, green, blue (RGB), and it is vital that this – and other qualitative data – is properly stored at the time it is entered into the system.

Also essential these days is that your system be able to hold the spectrophotometric .qtx or equivalent file information, or at least allow concerned parties to download it as an attachment. If your company and suppliers have a digital exchange of color standards and reference these to lab dip approvals, the link between color standards, and approvals of lab dips may also be linked with material and supplier records. These cross-referenced links become a major asset later in the process, and represent another aspect of trend and design that is possible within PLM. Most PLM systems also have the ability to ascribe a reference or a link to the color standard provider so that suppliers can order their own physical color standards. Some color standard providers also keep a database of previous client colors available online. If this database could be cross referenced with desired new colors entered into PLM, a lot of money could be saved by choosing very similar colors that have already been developed versus ‘reinventing the color wheel’ each season for a few custom colors.

Connecting records and references within PLM. as well as externally from the beginning of the process, typically brings greater visibility and time savings for the duration of product development – provided the right standards are adhered to at the time these records and references are brought into the system.

Digital representation allows everyone to have his or her own window into the grand vision.Tangentially speaking of trends, on the manufacturing technology side, the recent introduction of an affordable 3D desktop printer with a open source library of existing designs combined with the gradual acceptance of 3D design and modeling by the apparel industry means we could be on the cusp of a very interesting new consumer model. Don’t bet the farm yet, though, as 3D printing of fibers and fabric still has a long way to go, but for solid items, such as buttons, and some embellishments and trims, there is a huge potential for designers in the industry to play with many ideas while limiting sample costs.  Assuming these technologies do come into common use, adding the resulting 3D scans and files to the materials library in PLM would allow for instant digital transmission to any supplier around the world, treating three-dimensional imagery the same way as the humble trend board. The beauty in this is that it combines digital accessibility with the ability to create a physical representation in a matter of minutes. Although it is still solely within the digital realm, 3D patternmaking for sewn products is getting closer and closer to a true virtual reality.

So many companies create wonderful, comprehensive design and trend information, only to discard it the next season, or to leave it languishing in a single design room, rather than sharing it with the people responsible for transforming that inspiration into a physical garment.  By properly adopting PLM and the stringent data standards required, a huge range of trend and design data can be collected, shared, and updated, helping to ensure that the final garment arrives not just closer to trend, but closer to its designer’s original intention.

Next month we’ll continue the process of product development through to patternmaking and technical design, and look at how, as with trend and design, PLM is allowing companies to enhance their traditional ways of working, from design to delivery.

About Kilara Le

A senior contributor to WhichPLM, Kilara Le has a background in design and textiles, and a passion for streamlining product development. She has worked with major international retailers, brands, and technology providers on improving business processes, technology implementation and software development. A seeker of elegant solutions to meet business goals and challenges, she is currently a freelance consultant with Walter Wilhelm Associates, and has previously worked with Gerber Technology, PTC, Dassault, and Lectra software.

View Kilara Le's profile →

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