In the first instalment of a brand-new series, business process expert Kilara Le examines the place of Core PLM in the product lifecycle, and looks at how integration with a growing number of supporting solutions (those that we describe as E-PLM, and that take in everything from CAD/CAM to merchandise planning) has become such a vital part of many implementations.
Extending the capabilities of PLM (or Product Lifecycle Management) by connecting it with other business systems has become essential to effectively managing, analysing and reporting on the whole product development lifecycle. Ours is a visual industry adapting hourly to global trends, situations, and the multiple vendors affected by them. Because of this, we need to be able to “see” where we are and what is really going on, in order to react quickly, create beauty from this chaos, and still manage to remain focused on the bottom line.
In the last 10 years, PLM systems have become an indispensible business tool for managing product development across the apparel industry. Traditionally PLM has been defined as starting with a product concept or sketch and ending with a “handoff” to an ERP, or Enterprise Resource Planning, system once approved for production. A PLM system would traditionally be responsible for also tracking the product through steps in a defined workflow in between. The problem is that product development and internal processes are rarely so simple and linear, and software is rarely as adaptable and visually oriented as the people who use it.
Amongst the many providers of PLM in the retail, footwear and apparel industry there are a plethora of options ranging from “out of the box” configurations that can be up and running within a few months, to completely customized solutions that can take years to implement fully. Some vendors offer all system functionality as a single package and others offer modules to phase functionality. Both, depending on business needs and allocated budget, can be equally viable options. The key concept is defining “business needs” and analyzing what they truly are, both at present time and anticipating what they will or will likely be in order to meet future corporate goals. This is an essential part of identifying the right PLM vendor for any organization, but also a catalyst for discussions about what other business systems or software need to be purchased or integrated with that core PLM solution in order to truly facilitate management of the organisation’s whole product lifecycle. Those systems and software are becoming collectively known as E-PLM.
No provider, whatever their claims, can offer one system that meets every single need of every customer across the entire concept-to-delivery cycle. This isn’t a disparaging statement, simply reality: as every company works and thinks a little differently. Organisations can’t just depend on technology providers to solve their problems; they must be active participants in the management of their own creative processes through information technology. Adding the interconnectivity that defines E-PLM means gaining greater control through visibility.
Of these points of interconnectivity, PLM’s connection to an ERP system is most frequently discussed, but there is a great deal of other software used in processes before, after or running parallel with the product development cycle. Most companies have terabytes of valuable data in disparate systems, but it is essentially worthless if these “data islands” are incommunicado. Additional investment to create links between this data – minute compared to the initial substantial investments made in software databases, servers, licenses and manpower – can provide significant, companywide ROI.
Financial & Line Planning, POS data
While many PLM systems start at the sketch concept stage, some providers have incorporated financial line planning, and even merchandise line planning into their PLM solution strategy and workflow capabilities. But what financial plan, or merchandising plan for that matter, doesn’t take into account last year’s sales data? Most retailers have this information from their point of sale (POS) system, and many brands can obtain the same information from their retail clients. This information, like that from all unconnected systems, is then typically cut and pasted from one or two reports into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, broken into smaller spreadsheets and then typed into planning software for the current planning period. Connecting this POS data directly back into the PLM backbone financial plan, or other merchandise planning software, can provide an easy way to see last year’s, last month’s, or even last week’s numbers, saving days’ worth of time, and enable more intelligent planning. Linking e-commerce data, especially if used as a testing ground, can enable even faster reactivity.
Trends drive the industry, from uniforms to haute couture to automotive carpet; they guide us, dictate market performance, and need to be kept front and center for all departments, not just left in the design room. Few PLM systems have a way to showcase visual and material trends, but solutions can be found, whether on internal web portals that are also PLM login pages, or by connecting trend visuals to storyboard processes. So often concepts get lost in translation between suppliers, agents and even internal sourcing departments, but this need not be the case where trend analysis and inspiration is factored into both core and E-PLM implementations.
Trend drives color, not only visually, but also from a fabric and material construction perspective. This in turn drives the formulation of the dyestuffs used to create the correctly colored end product under the desired lighting conditions in a retail environment. Making color work across channels is a true science and managing it not only requires a system rooted in this science, but a partnership with one of the companies who create, manage, read, and analyse color. A few PLM systems do hold color data, but can’t automatically read spectrophotometric files and measure the difference between the material lab dip and color standard. The main color analysis providers that do this have tracking systems that analyze this lab dip color data, but capture very little in the way of product data. Building bridges between these E-PLM systems and Core-PLM is a win-win situation from product development right through to marketing and retail.
Fabric & Compliance
For many apparel companies, material testing is an off-line activity that is only essential for approval before production, but for active sports and footwear, this is very often integral to approval of color/material from the very beginning of the process. All PLM systems have a space to hold material information, but this may not be detailed enough to capture technical construction “standards” information and the material testing in one place.
Moreover, if this information is captured, it may not be easily accessible or searchable to view what is or is not approved. The large material testing labs have their own databases that their customers can access in addition to the material pass/fail reports they receive. There are also software providers that capture and track detailed material information that links to color and supplier approval. Some of them can even give visibility to mill test results while fabric is still in production. Compliance from both human labor and restricted substances points of view can also be captured in these types of materials tracking systems. Linking this information back into a PLM system, as the “central nervous system”, brings material testing and compliance into the E-PLM product workflow and is also an easy way to troubleshoot customs or customer returns issues down the road.
Across languages and the industry in general, most ideas are best communicated visually. All PLM systems can show standard format images as attachments and some do read the native file formats of the industry’s most prominent design software. When PLM cannot read native file formats, scripts can be written that automatically re-save and publish updated sketch files from design software (most likely Adobe Illustrator) into a PLM-readable format. This makes viewing the latest version of the product sketch a breeze internally and for partners with system access. If designers forget to upload sketch updates, it can be a headache for everyone involved, so why not eliminate that possibility and give them more time to design rather than spend it converting file types?
Attaching pattern files to a PLM product is more efficient than emailing them – as is done traditionally. As many apparel companies don’t create patterns or only create first patterns, allowing supply chain partners to upload pattern files to a PLM product can help technical designers to give quick correction instructions, provided they have the patternmaking software to read the file. With increasing adoption of 3-D visualization, being able to view these files from PLM can help to reduce development time. These virtual garments can also be put into e-commerce sites or given to sales people to use as virtual showrooms – both of these examples capture the very essence of E-PLM, by taking data pertaining to a product all the way from the design room to the shop floor
It’s worth noting that the concept of E-PLM also takes in the kind of data management and support that an integrated environment requires. After combining data from multiple systems together, tracking by exception is the best way to quickly view bottlenecks. While many software providers advocate reports as the best way to do this, creating reports requires expertise in different databases and reporting tools, as does connecting systems together. This type of IT support is worth the investment if reports or real time screen views can enable users to “slice and dice” to view the exact data they need.
Broadly speaking, intelligently extending the role of PLM and having it serve as the central data location for your entire product lifecycle, or feed into a data warehouse, is a viable solution to provide visibility between all types of product development software – those you already use, and those you intend to incorporate into the various stages of your business in the future. In order to get this whole picture, an organization must determine the most advantageous way to integrate their business systems and development processes internally, and analyse precisely which aspects of both Core and E-PLM are vital to their ways of working.
About Kilara Le (nee Little)
Kilara 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.