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Extending PLM: The End of Product Development

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In the final instalment of her 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 ponders the “end” of product development – looking at what happens to the reams of valuable data held in PLM when garments enter production.

When we reach the “end” of product development, does it follow that we must also be reaching the “end of PLM”?

We tend to talk about “the season” or “the delivery” as though it’s the end of the story – as if the product or products being developed at that time represent the full extent of the work being done day in and day out.  The reality is that there is always product development taking place, even after the immediate season has ended.  Indeed, many organisations work on multiple seasons at the same time, with each one at a different point in the process, so that the end of one season can fall in the middle of the development for another, and so on.  As we’ve seen throughout my series, extending PLM through integration to other business systems enables the creation of better product at several distinct stages, from design to technical.  What we haven’t seen yet is how these benefits can be brought to bear on product development that has no typical end-point, and how the data and process improvements realised in one season can be fed into the melting pot of ideas for the seasons that follow it.

Like any technology, PLM is only as good as the hands that wield it: it can be a perpetuator of linear thinking (the traditional start-to-finish product lifecycle) as well as an enabler of cyclical flexibility, where compounded benefits begin to be realised through data and process pollination between seasons.  With a little creativity these two facets can be merged to create a well-oiled machine that adds value well beyond what is typically thought of as the “end” of product development.

[quote]Product development generates a huge amount of data, and its complexity can become compounded by the seasons.[/quote]

The end of product development is not like jumping off into the abyss of production.  To the contrary, the product, even when it has been “put into production” lives on in its physical form as well as in data that was created and curated during its development, with touch points in quality assurance and control, unpacking and repacking at the warehouse; a client’s comment to the retail salesperson or customer service representative, a tweet or Instagram photo that could trigger further sales, and even a donation for the trend-needy at a charity shop.  This data never truly is “out of sight, out of mind”, and it continues to be linked to the products and people that need it once the circumscribed limits of “product development” are passed – just as it in turn was linked to the products that came before it.  As such, giving employees who need this information access to it through PLM or linkage to another system can help to ensure better product consistency and accountability in the ongoing product lifecycle.

An example of PLM’s continued role in the life of a product: if a QC or warehouse team needs to see a tech pack in order to compare it to the actual product, they become an extension of PLM either directly or through linkage to one of the systems that they access.  Another example of the durability of PLM-housed data lies in ticking/checking off that factories have the required compliance documents and when they passed inspections.  In each case, data created during product development is needed and accessed with certainty that the information in question is accurate and consistent, since it comes from the one repository of information that was created during the product’s gestation.

[quote]Like any technology, PLM is only as good as the hands that wield it.[/quote]

As potent as both of these examples are, though, there are many other returns on extending PLM beyond the “end” of product development that are potentially more difficult to quantify. For example, what is the ROI on ensuring the consistent quality and fit that keeps customers coming back? What is the ROI on avoiding bad PR by knowing which approved factory is making your product, and when they’ve last been audited?  These are just two examples of how product data, centrally accessible within PLM, can allow an entire organisation to work towards the greater good.

[quote]The end of product development is not like jumping off into the abyss of production.  To the contrary, the product, even when it has been “put into production” lives on in its physical form as well as in data that was created and curated during its development.[/quote]

By far the greatest potential value add, in my opinion, is using Point of Sale (POS) data to enable faster identification of trends and potential for replenishment. This potential is even higher for traditional brick and mortar stores (versus online) that operate in different demographic areas.  There is huge potential to forecast faster and more accurately and gain better sell through with fewer markdowns. Doing this with a spreadsheet will quickly have your head spinning – but extending this data to compare it with upcoming plans and replenishment options in PLM is a smart modern solution to an age-old quandary – particularly when it takes account of data from previous seasons.

Further to this point, retail sales people should have the ability to add in comments from customers so that they flow back to products in PLM. This could be through a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) route or directly in PLM. A more esoteric view of this is using social media and audience/follower participation to either identify trends or have people vote on what they like the most. The uber-connected world of consumers can provide almost instant, and free, feedback on what they like or dislike about a product- why not look at capitalizing on this for forecasting? In today’s lightning fast speed to market world, design and merchandising teams have to be really in tune anyway to make sure they are creating what their customers want, why not add the critical factor – the final consumer- into that mix from the start? A brand or retailer’s online community management team could use PLM to add comments on existing styles and help generate ideas for new ones based on what they are gleaning from Big Data.

[quote]What is the ROI on ensuring the consistent quality and fit that keeps customers coming back?[/quote]

There is also the value add of extending PLM to the systems that “come after” product development, such as ERP and Sales Orders, Sourcing, Planning and Logistics – all of which have played their part in extending PLM over the months since I began these columns.  In recognition of the cyclical nature of product development, the data held in these systems can be intelligently linked back to PLM, during and after a single development phase, to aid in analysing past and present decisions in order to make better ones in the future.

But first it must be determined what data is truly useful and how it can best be used.

Today’s plethora of options for technological input and throughput help to both manage and impede the process of decision-making.  It takes time to enter data and it’s great when it provides quick and accurate visibility to those who need it. But it also takes time to run a report on it and even more time to cut and paste report data from disparate systems together to make sense of the data side by side. Part of the issue is getting the valuable data front and center, because who has time these days to sort through reports and number crunch into next week to figure out where things went wrong or right? Some companies have solved this issue by using a data warehouse or Business Intelligence system as the “data broker” that hooks up all of their vital systems data and allows analysis of it, and this is an area that requires serious consideration when we consider just how much use product development data sees, and how its complexity can become compounded by the seasons.

[quote]We are faced with a stark choice today: model our systems and data to align with the times, and use them to make better decisions, or continue to develop products in isolation.[/quote]

In this industry we tend to be cautious adopters (and where complex and enduring data is concerned, we are perhaps right to be), but we are faced with a stark choice today: model our systems and data to align with the times, and use them to make better decisions, or continue to develop products in isolation.

As I hope I have articulated in this series, in today’s crowded and competitive market, those companies who are able to extend PLM and use its centralised nature to link other data systems and functions both during and “after” product development will have true visibility from concept to consumer. Moving toward this ideal will enable the creation of better product and an organization better tuned to the needs of its employees and customers.

In short, by extending PLM we can do real justice to the realities of modern product development.

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.