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Gerber Technology’s Ideation 2012: The WhichPLM Report

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As conference locations go, Arizona’s Montelucia Resort & Spa is amongst the most unique. Resplendent with pools and patios and crouched in the noontime shadow of the Camelback Mountains, it is not the place you might expect to find a gathering of some of the industry’s brightest minds and most demanding customers, but then again, Ideation (Gerber Technology’s annual user event) is anything but a traditional software conference.

Placing product innovation at the centre of an overflowing schedule, Ideation 2012 – which ran from 22nd to 23rd October – used hands-on demonstrations and consumer testimonials to deliver a message that its organisers have worked hard to articulate over the past twelve months: Gerber Technology is changing. As regular readers will know, GT’s parent company Gerber Scientific Inc. was acquired by Vector Capital last summer, and since that time we’ve seen the company expand, refocus, and renew its commitment to users of its flagship CAD, PDM and PLM solutions across the board.

[quote]Elia called Ideation the company’s “most exciting conference” – one that he feels creates a unique energy.[/quote]

It follows, then, that this year’s Ideation conference represented a departure from the norm, too. Ostensibly a user event, Gerber also used the two days as an opportunity to announce and highlight some marquee innovations and WhichPLM were on hand to provide a full report on what was – both geographically speaking and in terms of its departure from what we’ve come to expect from similar events – a landmark.

The initial glitz and glamour came courtesy of a pair of videos that rolled as customers prospective and existing filtered out of the harsh desert sunlight and into the cavernous Alhambra ballroom. In jump-cuts, these showed the world moving at a heady pace, the camera flitting from one continent to another, pausing only for rapid timelapse shots of some of the globe’s busiest urban centres – from Belarus to the UAE.

In many ways these videos set the pace for the two days that were to come. It’s a trite saying but no less true for its being exhausted: the world waits for nobody and spins on heedless of whether we’re ready to keep pace. From a business perspective, innovation doesn’t rest, the competition won’t take a break, and your customers are unlikely to let you pause, collect your thoughts and re-tool before the launch of your next collection. We live in a world where everybody wants everything – interconnected, sprawling, exciting and inescapable – and they don’t want to wait for it.

With this introduction Gerber pulled no punches. I was left in no doubt that the company wanted to use this opportunity to demonstrate to partners, colleagues and customers alike that they are ready for this future.

First to take to the stage was Donny Askin, Senior VP and General Manager of the newly-branded Yunique Solutions Group within Gerber Technology.

For Askin, Ideation is about three fundamental things: it gives Gerber the opportunity to tell its customers what the company has been doing over the past year, it provides them with the chance to learn from end users what challenges they face and use that information to help drive [pullquote_right]Askin admits that he’s “a software guy at heart”, and much of what he enthuses about in the Yunique Solutions Group stems from that.[/pullquote_right]the innovation that sits at the core of their business, and – crucially – they provide an open and approachable platform for networking. As part of this, Gerber demonstrated a strong confidence by inviting a mix of existing and prospective customers to speak openly and frankly with one another – something supplier typically seek to avoid.

With a slightly tongue-in-cheek “networking hunt” (for which a prize was awarded for the first delegate who introduced themselves to everybody on the list) Donny plays a lot of his introduction for laughs, but it’s a studied sort of joviality and Askin never quite takes his eye off the ball. He knows that people are there to learn from their suppliers and their peers; he knows the world is watching, and he slips easily and confidently into the joint role of facilitator and senior executive.

When drawn, Askin admits that he’s “a software guy at heart”, and much of what he enthuses about in the Yunique Solutions Group stems from that. It’s clear throughout that he is proud of the developments the company has made on the software front – so much so that it appears as almost an afterthought that they have also achieved 40% year-on-year growth in what, for many, has been an extremely difficult time.

He added some context to that claim by explaining that the past year has seen some twenty-five new customers adopt Yunique solutions, and as a consequence the company has almost doubled its staffing in order to allow it to deliver the kind of innovation that Askin went on to describe.

[quote]Technology isn’t an end in and of itself, so whether you’re shortlisting, selecting, justifying or implementing, it’s what you do with a solution that counts[/quote]

Gerber will release version 8.5.1 of its Accumark CAD software in November, which is full of incremental improvements focused on allowing customers to achieve better yields. But this is an intermediary step towards what he calls “truly next-generation, intelligent CAD”, which is something the company will have more to say on over the coming year.

Of note for many legacy customers, the company is still updating WebPDM and plans to release version 6.5 soon. The most important developments where WebPDM is concerned, though, come from the considerable work the company has put into building bridges between it and YuniquePLM, and Askin took the opportunity to announce the new Yunify migration method, as well as a fleshed-out four-and-a-half-year plan that will lead to the sunsetting of WebPDM.

The focus on progress is not just talk, then, and Askin and his team are clearly committed to bringing their customers into the future of technology, in ways and according to timescales that suit their unique needs.

As for YuniquePLM itself (where Askin hopes all WebPDM customers will eventually find themselves), version 5.0 is due to launch soon and represents the most drastic overhaul of the solution to date. Askin explained that the goal of this rebuild has been to take the platform closer to the designer with bi-directional Adobe integration, the sample shoot studio, Yunique 360 and Yunique Markup capabilities, as well extending PLM’s reach to integrate more closely with ERP, with enhanced costing and sourcing capabilities.

The new milestone revision also boasts a cleaner interface, a new API layer, stronger cloud foundations, and a customer-facing SDK – all of which enable the most noteworthy announcement of the morning: the Yunique App Store. Covered in more detail in a later overview by Chief Software Architect Daniel Pak, the Yunique App Store is an iTunes-esque storefront from which end users can acquire enhancements and modifications from both the Yunique Solutions Group and from authorized partners, with the ability to demonstrate apps for a trial period of thirty days on development servers before buying. Over time, this new technical architecture is predicted to also greatly simplify upgrades and version changes.

Finally, Askin set out the company’s roadmap for the coming three years, all of which was centred around the desire to provide a truly end-to-end and tightly coupled Gerber solution, incorporating software and hardware that operates across the entire product lifecycle.

Askin was followed by President and CEO of Gerber Technology, Mike Elia. Elia called Ideation the company’s “most exciting conference” – one that he feels creates a unique energy, and gives the company’s customers and partners the opportunity to truly challenge them.

Elia appears to be a capable and down-to-earth CEO – one who recognizes the inescapable fact of running a business like Gerber Technology; he knows that everybody from designers to executives relies on his solutions to improve quality and reduce costs, and this is a responsibility that he does not take lightly.

Like Askin, Elia wants to see Gerber serve as its customers’ partner throughout the product lifecycle, and in order to achieve this, he explained, they have worked on their own internal capabilities to ensure that that trust is not misplaced. Recently, the company introduced a new cutter which went from concept to introduction in 45 days, and this streamlined, can-do attitude is one that Elia wants to see rolled out across the organisation in order for them to deliver the sort of grand innovation that sits at the heart of the day’s agenda.

[quote]In line with the Hippocratic Oath, it is the responsibility of IT to do only those things that create a supportive and non-damaging environment for their user community.[/quote]

Next, Askin introduced John Deane, CIO of Abercrombie & Fitch. His is an imposing resume – with more than thirty years’ experience in a dizzying array of sectors – but the articulate and unassuming Deane proved to be Ideation 2012’s most engaging and unusual speaker by far.

In his tenure as CIO, Deane has overseen implementations of PLM, visual merchandising, labour scheduling, a new customer database, merchandise planning, demand forecasting, data security solutions and more – all of which has been managed on a global level from the company’s headquarters in Ohio.

By his own admission these projects were not easy, but they were necessary. And Deane talked frankly about what he sees as IT’s role within an organisation of the size, repute and complexity of A&F where projects like these are concerned.

It is this symbiotic relationship between the company and its IT support that led Deane to talk about something we don’t often hear discussed – empathy in IT. For him, a significant part of being able to properly support the business was his switching from an engineering mindset to what he called a “healthcare” mindset. In line with the Hippocratic Oath, Deane said, IT has the potential to do a great deal of harm, so it is the responsibility of IT to take great care and to do only those things that create a supportive and non-damaging environment for their user community.

Empathy then, for Deane, is about an IT department feeling the same way its users and partners feel when they are under pressure. For him, Deane said, it is not a matter of their being “IT within Abercrombie and Fitch”, but rather their being Abercrombie & Fitch – adhering to the company values, being brand-obsessed and anti-bureaucratic, and remaining flexible, committed and dedicated enough to meet the needs of the company. This was a potent message, and something that we see discarded all too often when PLM or E-PLM implementations become strictly IT-led and IT-administered projects.

A stark contrast to Deane’s quiet confidence, the day’s final keynote speaker was the enthusiastic and bouncy Marshall Cohen, Chief Industry Analyst with The NPD Group. Cohen delivered a slightly scattershot but information-rich keynote entitled “The customer of tomorrow, today”.

This would be an even longer piece if I were to try and reproduce the entirety of Cohen’s presentation, but essentially, despite dark economic predictions, he believes that the average consumer (at least in the USA) has a renewed confidence in retail. They believe that the economy is going to get better, and this has led to a time of increased consumption that Cohen calls “the era of more”. In this environment, he says, the differentiating factor is how well retail is able to differentiate itself and compete against other distractions, because the “more” he talks about doesn’t just stem from retail itself, but rather faces competition from entertainment, consumer technology and more.

Mirroring the theme of this year’s event, Cohen believes that one of the only things capable of driving that differentiation after a period of austerity is innovation. For Cohen, success is tightly linked to a retailer’s ability to put themselves in the mindset of their customer – to think about how they can do more and develop the latest, most innovative or unique products and messaging without either vastly exceeding their budgets or compromising their focus

He then went on to talk about enriching the retail experience (whether that experience is online, in-store or via a catalogue) through what he called “platform marketing” – using the different channels to allow consumers to live the lifestyle of the brand.

When it comes to platform marketing, he said, it is vital to understand the consumer, and so Cohen went on to catalogue what he saw as the predominant trends in consumer behavior over the past five decades. These patterns will, Cohen said, inform the future, too, as we see stores carrying more and wider-ranging stock, but promoting them just as aggressively and over a longer selling season.

[quote]Despite being clearly mapped and well-organised, Ideation was a blisteringly fast two days packed with more content than any one delegate could ever hope to take in.[/quote]

Getting these things right, Cohen said, can create dedicated brand advocates. And as an example he“borrowed” an iPhone from an audience member, who we could see was visibly agitated at being separated from her phone. Rather than simple spite, though, this served as a neat demonstration of how the technology industry has been able to create passion and attachment to its products despite difficult circumstances, and Cohen closed by saying that this is something the fashion industry desperately needs to recapture.

It is worth noting that at this point, Ideation 2012 diverged wildly. At any given time the ten or so different conference rooms (and much of the sun-drenched outdoor terrace) were given over to hands-on demonstrations, education sessions and more. Needless to say, WhichPLM was not able to attend every session, and as such I opted to choose those events that I felt best served the interests of our readers. The next section of this report is not in blow-by-blow chronological order, but is intended instead to provide you with a real “taste” of Ideation as it was on the ground, with a focus placed on the demonstrations and case studies that, I felt, provided the best and most concise insight into both Gerber’s own developments and the kind of educational content that will be of use to any company ready to take the plunge on PLM.

And so, after the first of too many restorative caffeine breaks, I attended a case study presented by Bruce Smith and Terry Treanyon of historic manufacturer Fruit of the Loom, officiated by Gerber Technology’s Clayton Parker.

A common misconception is that Fruit of the Loom produce just underwear, when in fact the company manages several brands – including Russell, Vanity Fair and Spalding – each with multiple product types, taking in everything from intimate apparel to team uniforms and hard goods. They also own their own plants and conduct a good portion of manufacturing within the confines of their organisation. With different brands operating on different platforms, the company was encountering numerous issues related to the lack of a common development platform, a preponderance of scattered data, and the absence of any common output, so that each brand was fighting the other’s systems as they tried to achieve inter-brand collaboration.

In adopting YuniquePLM, I learned, Fruit of the Loom’s goal was to find both a capable out of the box software solution and an enduring partner that would allow them to surmount those issues. And, according to Smith, they selected Gerber on the basis of a longstanding existing relationship (covering production hardware and PDM), as well as the company’s willingness to experiment and configure.

Much to the delight of the gathered audience, Smith, Treanyon and Clayton were all candid about the lessons they had learned from the implementation. Foremost amongst those, we were told, was the importance of preparing for change. Whether you like it or not, Smith said, people will be uncomfortable with any enterprise-level change, but provided they are kept in the loop as to how the eventual implementation will affect both their day-to-day work and the broader goals of the company (so that they understand the goal from an enterprise and personal perspective) they will eventually come around.

A newer addition to the YuniquePLM family (and soon to be the subject of an exclusive profile here on WhichPLM) are Wolverine Worldwide, whose Merrell apparel division implemented the solution under the watchful eyes of Brian Snyder, Director of Global Apparel Operations, and Stephen Ozone, PLM Consultant with Gerber Technology.

The century old company, based in Rockford, Michigan, operates in 190 countries, and manages twelve owned and licensed brands. Although the parent company has produced footwear for most of that history, its apparel and accessories division is just over six years old. Despite its youth, though, apparel was for Wolverine a fast-growing business, and as a consequence, Snyder said, “the spreadsheets were getting out of hand”. Within the Merrell apparel division the company had duplicate data entry, discrepancies between data, and an absence of performance metrics, and so they began to work with YuniquePLM to achieve what Snyder referred to as “one system and one truth”.

As previous users of WebPDM – albeit only with product developers – Wolverine opted to deploy their PLM solution at every level of the business, bringing on board customs specialists, data managers, designers, product developers, garment technicians and more. So, while at any given time they have many different departments working at different phases of different seasonal collections, the most immediate benefit is that all are now working from one unified set of data.

For Snyder, a large part of realising the benefits of PLM (and his division have seen a five week reduction in cycle time) lies in helping people to see change as an opportunity rather than a challenge, and achieving a careful balance between handing down edicts and listening to feedback.

[quote]Innovation doesn’t rest, the competition won’t take a break, and your customers are unlikely to let you pause, collect your thoughts and re-tool before the launch of your next collection.[/quote]

A case study of an entirely different sort was presented by Edward A. Gribbin, President of three-dimensional fit and dress form specialists Alvanon. This is a topic that has been touched upon here by Peter Richardson in recent weeks, and Gribbin shared our Editorial Board’s opinion that fit remains one of the most vital (and oft-neglected) components of fashion.

Gribbin’s company is focused on the science that transforms 3D body scans into avatars and fit forms, with the goal of using these resulting improvements in fit to generate consumer confidence, so that consumers can shop safe in the knowledge that what they buy will fit them. Fit should be correct, consistent and clear, Gribbin said, and achieving that consistency and clarity within a defined style is what creates brand loyalty. To give an idea of the cost implications of fit, he explained that the average company goes through five samples prior to production; an initial prototype can take eight weeks to generate, and a typical retailer with 150 styles per season will as a result wind up with 1,500 samples at a cost per sample of more than $6,000.

So how should brands look to reduce these costs and place a renewed emphasis on fit in an extremely diverse world, with more body shapes and sizes than ever before?

Gribbin explained the role of non-linear grading in achieving this goal. Rather than simply “stretching” one shape into a range of six or seven typical sizes, he explained, different points of measure can and should move in ways that take account of the changes that occur in body shape as sizes increase. Gribbin substantiated the idea of non-linear scaling with an interesting anecdote about how the rise in breast augmentation has led to an entirely new fit category being created, since these women diverge from normal size and shape patterns, and their fit would not be adequately covered by simply making a medium garment larger in the chest.

As we saw in Andrew Dyer’s recent piece here on WhichPLM, we have the capability today to create avatars with the same shape, geometry, measurements and balance as a given model, and then integrate that information into most CAD systems. All-important non-linear grade rules can be applied to those avatars, and then 3D draping used to optimize technical fit for any given size.

Eventually, Gribbin predicted, this kind of three-dimensional, scientific development will cut significant time out of product development, dramatically reduce the number of samples required, improve fit accuracy, improve fit consistency, and reduce overall product development costs for forward-thinking brands. For them, he argued, brand loyalty will follow.

The same three-dimensional method of working was also on display in a demonstration of Gerber Technology’s V-Stitcher (produced in association with longterm 3D experts Browzwear, now owned by Pragma) given by Rodolfo Rodriguez.

For Rodriguez, 3D working comprises a set of tools that allow designers and garment technicians to quickly and easily visualise sewn samples on a virtual dress form or avatar, taking account of the wide variety of body shapes and sizes that can exist within a given population, and using that information to factor in the unique characteristics of fit and fabric at an early stage.

The image is also, he explained, the most universal form of communication, and the best way – he feels – to articulate conceptual designs and materialise prototypes quickly and at vastly reduced cost in a world of expensive and time-consuming multinational physical sampling.

[quote]Askin and his team are clearly committed to bringing their customers into the future of technology.[/quote]

Perhaps aware that 3D working feels out of reach for many retailers and brands, Rodolfo’s overview was a gentle way of introducing advanced capabilities in a supportive and approachable environment, and was supplemented by hands-on sessions the following day.

Back in the main ballroom – after a hearty American breakfast – the second day’s proceedings began with two back-to-back panel discussions. The first of these was chaired by consultant Nancy Johnson, founder and CEO of Optimyze LLC, and comprised Fruit of the Loom’s Vice President of Product Development, Bruce Smith, Singletree Technologies President, Vincent Candela, and Erik LaValle, Senior Director of Supply Chain Systems at Carter’s / Osh Kosh.

Nancy herself boasts experience of virtually everything the apparel industry has to offer, and her introduction was a stark reminder of how far the industry has come in such a short space of time. Like anyone who has worked on the ground for any length of time, Nancy recognizes that as a result of that progress the marketplace for technology and solutions for fashion is more clouded than ever, and that buying decisions don’t take place in a perfect vacuum, but are influenced to a great degree by our economic climate.

In this environment, all spend has to be justified, and the panel members each had different perspectives on how that justification should be approached. For Fruit of the Loom, Smith says, it was a matter of analysing their spend against each of the brands that they wanted (eventually) to bring on board with YuniquePLM, and to narrow down specifically what they needed to do with each, rather than trying to justify PLM as a concrete entity. For Candela, he finds that when a system – like PLM – is replacing arduous or inefficient manual processes, people tend to see the benefits as being immediately apparent, and as such these systems can require less justification than you might think.

This was picked up on by LaValle, who rehearsed a mantra that regular readers will have heard repeated here at WhichPLM: technology isn’t an end in and of itself, so whether you’re shortlisting, selecting, justifying or implementing, it’s what you do with a solution that counts – so it’s vital that your business understands what those goals are, and justification will follow.

The panel also looked at the specific returns on investment that, in their experience, are typically the most achievable. For LaValle the bottom line counts, and Carter’s have focused on and achieved margin improvements, reduced product costs and better resource allocation under PLM. For Fruit of the Loom, up-front costing and increased visibility has allowed their design teams to work from an earlier stage on creating garments that are achievable within a reasonable budget. Candela, too, believes that as businesses begin to extend PLM into sourcing and then further downstream, they will be able to create more accurate Bills of Material than ever before.

[quote]PLM, CAD, or PDM are more than just IT initiatives – they are business prerogatives that affect every part of the organisation.[/quote]

Finally, the morning’s first panel mulled over the importance of measuring both successes and failures, since placing a focus on usability and direct improvements to both the day-to-day lives of end users and the business will inevitably mean that some things go better than others. It’s important to use that unvarnished feedback to assemble the most accurate picture possible for management.

As we heard from many of the events other speakers, PLM, CAD, or PDM are more than just IT initiatives – they are business prerogatives that affect every part of the organization, and it’s only by recognising this, justifying, reporting and communicating accordingly that the solution in question can deliver benefits on both an enterprise and personal level.

For the final of the day’s all-inclusive sessions, the entire Yunique Solutions management team took to the stage to field user questions. This was a lively Q&A that saw the team challenged by audience members on PLM’s adaptability to different verticals, the future of the Accumark CAD solution, and the ways in which the proposed SDK and open APIs of YuniquePLM version 5.0 will work to extend the footprint of PLM.

Befitting his role as chairman, Donny Askin provided the most succinct summary of the session (and indeed the event as a whole) when he spoke of the importance of balancing the focus for which Yunique Solutions is known – because he has seen competitors try to be all things to all men and fail – against user requests for wider functionality. For Gerber, Askin said, it is a delicate combination of the two that will allow the company to deliver the quality of products that is synonymous with their name. And if the spirit of Ideation is to be seen anywhere in the conference, it’s in this direct dialogue between the people who shape the future of the company’s solutions and those who manage it.

The final case study WhichLPM was able to attend was given by Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F), whose CIO had provided such an impassioned and unusual keynote presentation on the first morning. Perhaps not surprisingly in light of Deane’s earlier comments, this presentation focused on the importance of business buy-in and the user experience rather than the nuts and bolts of technical implementation.

As Jim Ray (Senior Manager of IT Supply Chain Systems) from A&F and Gerber Technology PLM Consultant Courtney Dunn explained, the company undertook a very thorough user acceptance testing (UAT) phase during the implementation, which ran for three months and included regular dialogues and training sessions.

Although much of what it can afford to do is a result of the company’s unique culture and success, A&F has a lot to teach other organisations about retaining the user-centricity of PLM. Indeed, the company was garrulous about the lessons it has learned from the implementation, and feel as though their users would have benefitted from even more training on the base product.

Away from the range of other technical discussions, networking sessions and workshops, I was later treated to a hands-on demonstration of the new Yunique 360 platform. This combination of tightly-coupled hardware and software (a recurring theme) allows 360-degree images of samples to be captured in either a dedicated studio setting or using the company’s iPhone app, and then for those images to be rotated, cropped, annotated upon and shared using a tool called Yunique Markup. This is undoubtedly functionality we have seen elsewhere, but Gerber has clearly gone to considerable lengths to ensure that it fits into the Yunique Solutions package, and the demonstration was yet another compelling insight into the communicative power of images – particularly during sensitive and often-difficult communication with third parties and supply chain partners – and the enticing prospects the company is hoping to create with its end-to-end solution suite.

[quote]The meat of Ideation rests in its studied and calculated sense of calm and approachability in the face of a veritable storm of content.[/quote]

And – last but by no means least – WhichPLM attended a session given by YuniquePLM’s Chief Software Architect, Daniel Pak, in which he outlined the key features of the PLM solution’s landmark version 5.0, including the aforementioned open APIs and software development kit. Using these, Yunique Solutions, third parties and users alike will all be able to create their own apps for the solution. In terms of functionality, it’s clear that although the company is continuing to support both versions 4 and 5, it’s the latter that represents the future of YuniquePLM – open, approachable, powerful, and ready to be integrated and adapted into virtually any environment. And this user-centric, open approach is something that’s reinforced with the launch of WikiHelp (coming alongside YuniquePLM 5.0) which endows each action in the solution with what the company calls a “life saver” bubble, linking to user documentation that can be personalized and contributed to by individuals within a given organisation.

If this is a breathless report (and it certainly felt that way to write) it is because, despite being clearly mapped and well-organised, Ideation was a blisteringly fast two days packed with more content than any one delegate could ever hope to take in. It takes a unique approach to deliver an event that’s as interesting to designers as it is to executives, and as safe for prospective customers (who are often shepherded and marked at other industry events) as it is liberating for existing ones. Ideation may have innovation at its heart, but the meat of the event – whether it’s marquee announcements or intimate demonstrations – rests in its studied and calculated sense of calm and approachability in the face of a veritable storm of content.

So whether or not Gerber achieve their aim of creating an end-to-end partnership with everybody at the event, with a potent combination of demonstration, announcement, hands-on experience and education, they can confidently claim in Ideation 2012 to have already created something for everybody.


Editor’s note: For more on Ideation 2012, look out for our exclusive interviews with the Yunique Solutions Group’s Bill Brewster, and Wolverine Worldwide’s Brian Snyder in the coming weeks.

Ben Hanson Ben Hanson is one of WhichPLM’s top contributors. Ben has worked for magazines, newspapers, local government agencies, multi-million pound conservation projects, museums and creative publications before his eventual migration to the Retail, Footwear and Apparel industry.Having previously served as WhichPLM’s Editor, Ben knows the WhichPLM style, and has been responsible for many of our on-the-ground reports and interviews over the last few years. With a background in literature, marketing and communications, Ben has more than a decade’s worth of experience, and is now viewed as one of the industry’s best-known writers.

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