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Extending PLM: Sourcing with software

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In the fifth 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 role that PLM – either alone or in concert with standalone systems – can play in the sourcing process, when designs and techpacks become commercially-viable reality and master data allows organisations to make the best-informed and most cost-effective decisions possible.

In my previous column, I looked at how the scope of PLM can be extended to bring technical design and patternmaking into what is traditionally thought of as a “closed system” and, in doing so, allow even more stakeholders access to the benefits that extended PLM can bring.  Those benefits are myriad, but foremost amongst them is the way that, as more information and commentary is added to the centralised repository that is PLM, the entire product development team gains greater visibility into one another’s decisions.  This makes it easier to actually function like a team, irrespective of each individual’s skillset, timezone, location, or native tongue.

In the section of the product lifecycle I want to examine this month, it’s the addition of construction and materials information in particular that is pertinent – further extending the already-growing reach of PLM to sourcing.

[quote]…as a source of master data, PLM is a natural fit for feeding integrated systems at both ends of the product lifecycle.[/quote]

Sourcing is a broad term, but one that means some specific things within the apparel industry.  After an initial techpack has been created by designers and garment technicians, it’s then time for the sourcing team to work on finding the ideal – yet most cost effective – materials, and at least one factory to construct the product.  It is worthwhile to note that some companies work with dedicated suppliers and know what approved fabrics and materials they’ll be using from the “get-go”, but this is not the case for everybody, and the role of the sourcing team can be a complex one as a result.  Additionally, if the company is working with agents, you may never actually get to know who your suppliers are, unless you specify from whom you’d like them to get your materials.  In short: sourcing is the art of turning designs into commercially-viable reality, as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

So, when you are dealing with any of these scenarios (but especially with directly sourced goods, such as fabrics, labels or branded items) creating a detailed Bill of Materials (BOM) within PLM is essential. A well-populated BOM gives garment manufacturers a whole host of information: approved suppliers, related specifications, and which materials they are able to acquire from their own sources.

The best way to build a solid BOM is – as with most of the disciplines I’ve discussed in my columns – to base it on the most accurate, timely, and consistent sources of information possible.  In the same way that we’ve seen designers work with shared moodboards, sourcing teams can be at their most efficient by populating PLM with detailed material records for each material, whether it finds a place in their final BOM or not.

As is always the case with these articles, when I speak about extending PLM I’m not just talking about what we call “core PLM” solutions.  There are also some great standalone material systems in the market that will integrate to your PLM solution, if your PLM solution is not quite right to capture the type of material information needed in your organisation.  In addition to creating a detailed record of the material, these dedicated solutions typically track materials, their testing and lab dip results and may even link with mills to track when fabrics are in production. With the aforementioned integration, these kinds of systems can easily be bridged and become natural extensions of PLM, linking with the detailed material records. Some information in this type of materials database could also be pushed to an ERP system when goods are approved and both testing and price is signed off on.  And, as a source of master data, PLM is a natural fit for feeding integrated systems at both ends of the product lifecycle.

So, for example, if some of your base materials suppliers were approved for last season, and only new lab dips need to be done for the new colors, this information can be pulled from your ERP, materials or purchasing system into PLM.  A more robust, bi-directional link can then pull and [pullquote_right]…some forward-thinking companies have now made their sourcing teams the owners of all material samples that come in, so that they can document and catalogue them in the centralised repository that is PLM.[/pullquote_right]push this information back and forth as current prices and colors are finalized.  Indeed, most PLM systems are smart enough to associate seasons with material prices and colors, in order to facilitate this kind of rich integration.  Where you’re dealing with the same product across different deliveries in different colors, this kind of deep systems integration can replace a lot of spreadsheet wrangling.

Adding another layer to the extension of PLM is the use of color matching equipment and its related software – both vital components of the sourcing and sampling process.  Together these record the scientific reflection data for a specific color – using a spectrophotometer – and can then be used to compare it with lab dips that are submitted against the standard.  Unlike materials information, though, this is such a specialised process that it makes sense to leave the software component of it to the companies who really understand the science underpinning the art.  Some of them are also associated with specific dye companies and can give suppliers an easy way to achieve their targeted colors by providing the exact dye formulas for color standards. The results that they record, though – especially pass/fail information and comments on how to correct the color – are precisely the kind of rich information that’s so crucial to providing extended visibility in PLM.

However materials are first documented, when they are finally approved for production  – either by design to be sourced, or by quality or sourcing to go into production – a status on the material record in PLM is by far the best way to indicate this. Some systems can at this stage block visual access to non-approved materials, or prevent them being added to a BOM unless approved. Still others block approval or progression of a product to an overall “approved for production” status unless all materials on a BOM are approved.  Both ways of working are valid and depend on the relative complexity of and need for compliance in your products and process. As materials make up the largest part of the cost of a product, keeping track of their costs, quantities, and a whole host of rich data about their colour, characteristics and composition can represent a considerable saving, – even if you’re not purchasing them directly.

Some might consider this to be a waste of time in the beginning of the product development process when many potential materials are floating around the design room, but, as the product designs are ratcheted down, good material documentation saves a great deal more time in the long run.  Rather than later spending a week hunting through piles of samples for that one button or fabric swatch that the designer “just has to have”, it’s far more effective to create photographs and material records during those initial stages, so that sourcing can get on with finding the fabric in question, costing it, and avoiding lost time.  In fact some forward-thinking companies have now made their sourcing teams the owners of all material samples that come in, so that they can document and catalogue them in the centralised repository that is PLM.

As well as serving as that centrally-accessible data source for materials information, PLM also allows for the association of materials test results, lab dips, and final garment tests to the related material or product records.  And the ability to link this kind of information directly also opens up the possibility for sourcing teams to associate supplier records to their certifications and audit results, ensuring that the most compliant and best-performing suppliers are ranked accordingly.   As with most aspects of PLM, data and software functions can be blocked from view to those users who don’t need access, meaning that potentially sensitive data of this ilk can be restricted to sourcing, design and executive departments.

Providing greater visibility to this kind of information through the extension of PLM is much easier than digging through filing cabinets or calling up an array of spreadsheets to figure out if a problematic product or material was approved. Quite simply the information is accessible with fewer man-hours or fewer keystrokes. Moreover, tailored reports can be written that pull this information from PLM, giving visibility into vendor related statistics like pass/fail rates per supplier for material testing, lab dip submissions and number of sample submits until approval.

Speaking of purchasing, if you are actually committing to and /or buying materials, extending PLM will allow you to calculate just how much of a material is needed, including estimated waste. This information can help to prevent over or under buying. Having this ability does require BOM’s in your products to contain accurate yields and accurate material records, though, and further underlines the importance of populating your central data source with accurate and consistent information.  With the increased knowledge from implementing this process discipline, you can then negotiate a better price with suppliers or avoid having excess inventory at the end of a season.   The benefits of each are obvious.

[quote]The best way to build a solid BOM is – as with most of the disciplines I’ve discussed in my columns – to base it on the most accurate, timely, and consistent sources of information possible.[/quote]

Another interesting extension of PLM comes when warehousing software returns information on material that is currently in inventory.  If you have visibility to the 100,000 yards of last season’s hot blue colour of jersey, or extra buttons you’ve paid for that are gathering dust, your design team can then create a product using it for the outlet, or incorporate it into a current design that is yet to enter production.

Using the tools and features in your existing PLM system is a great way to start to bring your product development team together, by extending access to the rich and varied information it contains to all of them.  With visibility comes the ability to make better-informed decisions and solve problems before they become major roadblocks – especially when the sourcing team is working toward a hard and fast deadline, ie. delivery.  Additional systems related to product development may capture more in-depth information than is needed in PLM, but when linked, select pieces of this data help to complete the picture for the whole development team and allow them to make the best possible decisions for the organization as a whole.

Traditionally, PLM stops then when products are “approved for production”, but in my next column we’ll look at some of the benefits of extending PLM through production and right on to the end consumer.

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.