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Extending PLM: Getting Technical


In the fourth 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 the critical transition between design and manufacture, and makes an argument that extending PLM to the technical design, patternmaking and sampling phases can ensure more accurate interpretations between each.

In this, my fourth column in my “Extending PLM” series, we’ll continue to explore the lengthening reach of PLM throughout the product development cycle – this time focusing on patternmaking, technical design and sampling.  To recap, thus far we’ve examined the basic principles underlying the trend of extending PLM, and then explored case studies in the form of planning and design processes.  The next logical step in any product development cycle – after those products have been initially agreed on and designed – is to use an iterative sampling process to refine those designs into market-ready garments.

In many companies creative design and technical design are separate departments, though they work closely with one another to reach a consensus.  However, in some companies, creative and technical design departments are one and the same, meaning that the same team is responsible for both the right “look” and the practicality of each garment.  Whichever philosophy your company subscribes to, though, patternmaking is likely to remain a specialised discipline.

Both technical and creative sketches, however, are useful to the patternmaker, and as a consequence they are today frequently imported into a PLM solution and attached to the product record from an early stage to provide guidance to the individual(s) responsible for transforming designs into patterns ready for manufacture.   As I mentioned in my previous column, including inspirational and creative direction images in the PLM library (alongside the actual design drawings themselves) can help to bridge the gap between people’s interpretations of a loose sketch, and can help to ensure that the finished product is executed in the way it was intended.

[pullquote_left]Extending PLM to the technical design and patternmaking process offers some well-established and concrete benefits.[/pullquote_left]These sketches, along with basic product details, are the beginning of what is widely known as a tech pack (also called a technical package, specifications, spec pack, and more), which becomes the product “bible”, so to speak. As it is further developed internally, the data associated with it is refine and enriched, and the design proceeds to factories.  Interestingly, today’s feature-rich and extendable PLM systems evolved from Product Data Management (PDM) systems whose main purpose was the creation and retention of these tech packs.

Generally speaking an initial tech pack – whether it’s a sparse single page or a detailed, thirty-page document – is the first step along the road to a product prototype, by way of the iterative sampling process I mentioned earlier.   It’s worth noting, though, that reducing the number of samples between design and delivery has become one of the central tenets of product development efficiency, catered for by several different solutions.

So, beyond collecting design sketches and patternmaking information, a modern tech pack is also designed to help turn sketches into skirts with the fewest possible revisions, something it does by including style measurements, bill of material information, annotations and a clear sense of purpose and direction from the start.

Even with a close relationship between the design, technical team(s) and the patternmaker, agent or factory (as well as consistent block or base patterns) there is still a degree of uncertainty and artistic license in place.  By creating a tech pack that includes the most specific measurements and points of measure possible, a company can begin to see better samples in fewer submits.   Getting a good prototype sample on the first submission can be extremely effective in cutting development time, since (and we begin to see why this is such a popular trend) each sample can take weeks to turn around.

When it is properly implemented and extended to the technical design stages of product development, PLM can be the perfect vehicle to achieve this goal.  By serving as a centralized repository for product data, PLM can collect and make available across the entire product lifecycle measurement-specific data tables like points of measure per product type, grading, and standard measurements for a product in a size range (also referred to as a size run).  As each sample iteration not only increases cycle time but can cost anywhere from 2-10 times the cost of the final garment – plus shipping – this kind of best practice through PLM can help cut costs as well as save time.

[pullquote_right]A tech pack (also called a technical package, specifications, spec pack, and more) becomes the product “bible”.[/pullquote_right]Patternmaking is often, and rightly, referred to as an art form.  And while we are seeing a return to domestic and internal patternmaking, external agents and factories continue to dominate this role.  Where they are producing patterns, internal patternmakers are typically creating the first, before handing off to partners who are responsible for developing and tweaking subsequent patterns based on direction from the internal technical design or patternmaking departments.  This helps to ensure that pattern accuracy is maintained across revisions, but it can be an arduous process when done manually.  Even if no patterns are created internally, very often members of the development team will request that updated pattern files are sent to them by external partners and will spot check them for accuracy.   As you can imagine, having these available in a centralized, collaborative location helps immeasurably with both the workload and quality assurance process.

This may not be the case everywhere, but for the bulk of brands reading this article, this will be the way they handle their technical design and patternmaking today.  As 3D and 2D to 3D patternmaking software becomes more advanced and widely adopted, final pattern creation may yet shift back to internal teams, and there is little question that this technology will revolutionise the sampling process.

However your company works today or in the future, though, PLM is essentially uncontested as the best method for retaining, sharing and collaborating on the development of pattern files. No matter which pattern design system is used, a pattern file – or multiple files – can be easily attached to a PLM style record (the fabled “one version of the truth”) giving visibility to both internal and external teams as well as saving space in email, and eliminating data confusion and redundancy.

Unfortunately, due to proprietary file types, the patterns themselves can often not be displayed within PLM systems – unless the creator of your patternmaking software also happens to be the creator of your PLM system.  This is something that data standardisation advocates are seeking to eliminate, and something that I hope will become less and less prevalent with time.  Today the majority of 3D pattern and design files require external software to view, and so their data tends to be in one of several widely-accepted formats.  As the ubiquity of digital communication becomes the “new normal” and technical design and patternmaking teams grow accustomed to viewing their samples virtually, PLM is well-poised to emerge as the de facto method for bridging the gap between virtual design and the physical cutting table.

[quote]Including inspirational and creative direction images in the PLM library can help to bridge the gap between people’s interpretations of a loose sketch, and ensure that the finished product is executed in the way it was intended.[/quote]

In the more distant future, though, 3D displays may become advanced and realistic enough to negate the need for physical samples entirely – or certainly the current, iterative sampling process.  Showrooms and salespeople may be able to just as easily show potential buyers a virtual garment and quickly change it to meet their needs, without ever having to cut a piece of fabric. However, with this scenario, consistent fit and grading that is mutually understandable between your patternmaking system and PLM is essential to success – not an easy task given the differences in how the two types of systems “think” of grading.

Until that time, though, extending PLM to the technical design and patternmaking process offers some well-established and concrete benefits.  Many PLM systems have the ability to request samples as well as track when they are received.  And in addition to organising those physical sample submissions by color-coded tags, some companies have already implemented barcode scanning as a way to integrate their samples with their virtual equivalents in a PLM system.  This not only makes recording received samples a breeze, but as people in various departments scan them out to work with, it makes finding exactly who has them in the office much easier. Compare this with the common problem of missing samples and the common practice of sample tracking through a standalone Excel spreadsheet and the benefits should be immediately obvious.

[quote]Patternmaking is often, and rightly, referred to as an art form.[/quote]

And PLM’s role in sampling by no means ends there.  As product samples are evaluated and move to approval, having not only consistent points of measure but accurate grading of these points in your PLM data tables can save significant time in technical design and ensure that you are able to reliably achieve consistent fit across entire ranges of garments. Commonly fit adjustment comments are typed up from hand written notes that result from a fit session, taking additional time and increasing the potential for mistakes or omissions. The potential for miscommunication is even greater if design or merchandising participants are adding different comments than the technical designers – particularly when there is no single “accepted” version of the fit information.  With a universally-accessible PLM solution, comments and changes can be entered immediately and permeate across all users’ views of the product record.  As with the kind of qualitative data I mentioned in my previous columns, photos of the fit session can also be added to the PLM record to visually explain the desired changes to both fit and pattern. These (unlike the notes themselves) may need to be added after the session, but with clear notes already in the system it is far simpler to interpret the results of the fit sessions with both visual and alphanumeric information appearing in tandem. When all of these requested changes are kept closely associated to the style record in a PLM database (rather than in confusing email chains or on desktops) verifying the accuracy of subsequent samples in terms of quality and fit is considerably easier, quicker and more reliable.

After or during fit sessions as measurements are changed for a sample in the sample size, these changes should automatically be reflected in the graded measurements for the whole size range by your PLM system. And as more and more brands are giving their overseas offices and agents the responsibility for final fit approval, having the grading standardised and/or correct with your PLM style information is an essential component of avoiding product returns and inspiring consumer confidence.

Using even the most basic sample tracking (and this is something the right PLM solution can perform in considerably more detail), suppliers can be notified of sample requests, reports can be generated to measure sample turn around time, and supplier performance can be easily monitored as the system displays the number of submits each vendor takes to get the sample right.  This kind of supply chain and auditing information data is useful not only to the people evaluating the samples, but for the sourcing and other teams who follow them and are required to monitor many different metrics of vendor performance extremely closely.

Whether it’s design sketches, technical information, fit requests or the location of physical samples, the right PLM solution can collect and make readily available the information that is required by all teams – right through from design to delivery – in order to make better informed and more efficient decisions.  And as you’ll have guessed by now, its utility doesn’t end there, and my next article will analyse just how far PLM can reach into the product development process.

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.