Gerber Technology hosted their annual conference, ideation, for the seventeenth time this year. Top contributor and WhichPLM Reporter, Ben Hanson, shares his thoughts on the conference for us here.
Just before Halloween, more than 400 international delegates descended on the Las Vegas strip for a different kind of celebration – one without pumpkins or poker chips. Now in its seventeenth year, Gerber Technology’s ideation conference and its backdrop of the towers and travertine of Caesar’s Palace was their destination.
Although this year’s event was held right in the heart of risk-taking, Gerber’s signature mix of presentations, hands-on sessions, and frank, forthright interaction between innovators and end users has proven over the years to be anything but a gamble. Its organisers have proven time and again that they know their audience, and ideation2015 was no exception: attendees flocked from Shanghai, Paris, London, Moscow, Berlin, New York and even further afield, with visitor numbers up 20% on the previous record.
For some time now, Gerber has also invited select prospects to intermingle with their existing customer base, and to see first-hand how case studies, panel discussions, and other methods of customer collaboration help to shape the roadmap for the vendor’s product portfolio.
And as developers of PLM, CAD, and 3D software (as well as manufacturing hardware) Gerber’s portfolio is a complex one to present – even over the course of two fully-packed days of announcements and workshops. Unlike some other vendors, with a single product or a comparatively narrow selection to talk about, Gerber’s marquee event addresses several distinct but overlapping audiences. As a result, integration, connectivity, and communication were on everyone’s lips.
As well as being the industry’s latest preoccupation – under the umbrella of “the internet of things” or IoT – the way that technologies talk to one another, and the transformations this will inevitably bring about for business in an age of ubiquitous connectivity, was one of ideation2015’s strongest unifying threads. Where once this kind of event might have been considered a chance to talk design to the CAD customers, dashboards to their PLM counterparts, and upsell a little between the two, today each individual product is presented as part of an integrated whole.
This is what Bill Brewster (Vice President, General Manager, Enterprise Software Solutions, and one of ideation’s most prominent figures) referred to in his opening address as a “complete digital solution, capable of taking your products right the way from inspiration to real life”. It’s also a topic WhichPLM has discussed at length, encouraging companies to approach the product lifecycle with a digital-first mindset, and to think about data not as convenient way to store information about a physical garment, but as the driving force behind everything from its conceptualisation to its retail performance.
Indeed, a lot of this year’s event, including its partnerships, sponsorships, and guest speakers, was given over to exploring the narrowing distinction between the digital and the physical. 3D printed dresses, footwear, and the printers used to create them were on prominent display. Simulated fabric moved in a virtual breeze behind presenters talking about body-scanning and demographic-appropriate avatars. Entire infrastructures evaporated into the cloud, making the latest innovations available to everyone, with the keys to test-drive technologies like YuniquePLM 24 hours a day from anywhere.
It was apt, then, that both Brewster and Mike Elia (Gerber Technology’s CEO) acknowledged in their kick-off sessions that the most disruptive digital advances stem from physical gatherings like this one. Brewster reiterated the purpose of ideation as being “sharing and refining ideas,” while Elia credited the audience with inspiring Gerber’s recent innovations, saying that “to come up with great things, it takes a great community”.
WhichPLM has now covered ideation for several years, and beyond the format, honed with each iteration, the one constant has remained that sense of community. It’s no secret that gathering an international audience – certainly one of this size – requires dedication, but equally important is providing them with opportunity for dialogue. Although Gerber uses its stage as a platform for key announcements (and there were no shortage of these), ideation is intended first and foremost as an opportunity to work together – evidenced by a smartphone app that allowed delegates to both plan their visit, and to connect directly with other likeminded businesses.
So it’s little wonder that Brewster, charged with opening the first day, called this “the best ideation ever”. While he was undoubtedly also referring to the software and hardware innovations that a procession of Gerber presenters would unveil as the morning wore on, Brewster remained proudest of his team’s ability to involve “the best, most successful, brands, retailers, designers and supply chain partners from around the world” in their annual conversation.
It also fell to Brewster to introduce the year’s theme: “everything’s changed, but one thing hasn’t”. As he explained, the fashion industry has changed dramatically in the last fifty years; trends and technologies have been reinvented rapidly, and entire business models have been built on (and sometimes broken down by) emerging concepts like offshoring, e-commerce, and omni-channel retail.
Indeed, the accelerating pace of change has become characteristic of the apparel industry: competition is always mounting; material costs are always increasing; labour costs are always fluctuating; margins are being squeezed at every opportunity. But throughout that change, the one unwavering aspect, he said, has been the power of the customer – the ability for him or her to make an informed decision on whether your product met their needs, and the tools to make or break your business as a result.
For a retailer or brand, Brewster said, that means that despite huge shake-ups in the way they get a garment to market, what matters is that the end result is “the right product, in the right market, at the right time and the right price”.
But these consumer-facing businesses are by no means the only ones governed by customer demand, and Brewster explained how Gerber itself has fought to meet the expectations of its own customers, the delegates, through constant innovation. “What really drives value for you, our customers, is an integrated flow of data,” he said. “Whether it’s sharing merchandise plans, production tracking information, tech packs, or anything else, our measure of success is being the strategic partner who helps you bring all that together – providing innovative solutions and services that allow you to compete better in the market every day.”
Chief among these solutions for WhichPLM readers will be YuniquePLM, which is now past its sixth milestone version, with a seventh unveiled for spring 2016. Brewster cited 17% growth in Gerber’s core PLM business year-on-year, and more than 20,000 users of the platform worldwide, covering the entire extended supply chain. YuniquePLM, he said, is now used by the largest retailer in China, and was recently adopted by the vendor’s first Turkish customer, Kardem, who spoke later that day about their implementation and their approach to integration between PLM and ERP.
Their positive experience was also echoed by American mall brand Aeropostale who – albeit in video form rather than as a live case study – spoke about the challenges they faced in introducing a new brand in a compressed timeframe, and the role YuniquePLM played in overcoming them. The brand in question was built around Bethany Mota (a YouTube personality who I’m apparently far too old to have heard of), and although the parent company only went live with YuniquePLM in July of 2014, they were able to completely conceptualise and deliver the new products by December of the same year.
“One of the biggest benefits for us is the ability to analyse,” explained a pre-recorded Meg Muntis. “With centralised libraries and a single version of the truth, we can both design new capsules – moving them quickly to market – and effectively assess every stage of the process.”
Underscoring that balance of urgency and evaluation, Brewster explained that time to market has become such a common challenge that it is now one of the primary drivers (along with efficiency and connectivity) for PLM adoption. He believes that, on average, Gerber solutions are responsible for customers’ trimming between 30% and 50% off their total design and development time.
Speed also figured prominently in Mike Elia’s presentation, with a strong focus not just on software innovation – with over 400 new features introduced across the extended Gerber Technology ecosystem – but on the pace at which these features are being introduced.
At last year’s event, Elia explained, the vendor announced YuniquePLM version 6, and version 10 of its AccuMark 2D CAD software, alongside version 1 of its 3D counterpart. All were released in the first half of 2015, making them “the fastest releases in our history”.
But despite AccuMark’s status as “the most loved piece of software in our industry”, as Elia puts it, this speed of innovation (like the pace of change in the industry as a whole) is something Gerber must work hard to maintain.
WhichPLM’s most recent print publication was dedicated to exploring the explosive potential of 3D working for footwear and apparel, and this is a message that Elia and his team appear to have taken to heart. “When we introduced AccuMark 3D version 1,” Elia explained, “customers told us they wanted better performance, greater realism, and a more seamless way of integrating 3D into their workflows”. These, along with other improvements like simultaneous 3D/2D alterations were, he said, instrumental in Gerber’s decision to fast-track version 2.0 of their 3D solution, announcing it on-stage in Las Vegas, just four months after the initial release.
This is a bold step in an industry that tends towards small and incremental updates; Gerber could have been forgiven for bundling a few small changes into a point release, but instead chose to forge forward with a major new version in an extremely compressed timeframe. This speaks to both the sudden uptake of 3D – fast becoming a financial imperative, given the spiralling costs of sampling – and Gerber’s evident commitment to meeting customer demand.
And AccuMark 3D is certainly not alone in enjoying this level of support, with significant new versions of AccuMark 2D (version 10.1), AccuNest, and YuniquePLM (version 7) announced alongside the new YuniquePLM In The Cloud.
The latter is significant for several reasons – not least Yunique PLM’s $129 per user, per month price tag (revealed in a later breakout session to be discounted based on license quantity and commitment timeframe) or the applause that greeted its reveal on-stage. As KP Reddy, CEO of SoftWear Automation Inc., explained in a later panel discussion, technology as a whole has undergone something of a paradigm shift when it comes to development, in part driven by the viability of cloud deployment models. Rather than iterating in minimal ways and gauging customer feedback post-hoc, software vendors can collaborate with users, test-driving innovations before they reach the broader market; as a result, every behind-the-scenes iteration lands closer to the mark, and milestone releases emerge organically rather than being forced.
In discussing the cloud, it’s important to realise that while 73% of enterprises see “improved business performance after implementing cloud-based apps and strategies”, as Elia cited, the definition of “cloud” has been misappropriated so frequently that the average customer may not actually realise that a move away from on-site hosting can mean much more than splitting an up-front bill into manageable, monthly chunks.
To support this, Elia explained that, following a lean start-up development model, Gerber had conducted an extensive pilot programme of more than 200 “test-drives”, asking existing YuniquePLM users to help to shape their cloud roll-out, and promoting rapid, agile response to their suggestions. And, speaking during the later panel discussion, Pierre Steckmeyer of Amazon Web Services extolled the extended benefits of cloud computing. “With a low, variable cost, you obtain agility and speed, because new technologies are almost instantly-accessible,” Steckmeyer explained. “Rather than estimating what you might need in the way of computing power – mapping peaks and averages – what you need is always available to you, and this is a fundamental transformation in our relationship with technology. Your virtual infrastructure in the USA can be replicated in Sao Paolo or Dublin in an instant, giving you the opportunity to experiment practically without risk.”
With the cloud-based version of YuniqePLM now available, I had the opportunity to sample the test drive process (readers can try it for themselves at http://testdrive.yuniqueplm.com) and found it an extremely interesting prospect – and one I’m yet to see another vendor offer. It’s not uncommon for retailers and brands to approach the selection of a new or replacement solution with no real understanding of the current capabilities of either new software, or the latest version of their incumbent vendor’s product. Being able to spin up a time limited, grid-hosted instance at home represents an extremely compelling way to interact with a product when a traditional demonstration, on-site or remote, is impractical or undesirable.
With other vendors offering cloud-based solutions (some tailored specifically for the needs of small businesses) WhichPLM fully expects that this kind of intelligent use of off-site hosting will become one of the next major areas of differentiation for PLM vendors competing to acquire new customers, whatever their size.
And although he remained focused on functionality rather than finances, Elia did close his presentation by mentioning Gerber Technology’s market performance. Company-wide, revenue is up 6% year on year, and earnings up by 45% judged on the same basis. Rather than put a figure on investment, Elia articulated his hope that this will be self-evident in the speed and scope of the vendor’s new releases. “What matters to us is that the investments we make deliver the solutions our customers want,” he said. “It’s not about what we spend, but what we deliver.”
Elia was followed on stage by Karsten Newbury (Vice President and General Manager of Software Solutions) who talked about the technology-driven trends that are creating the future in which these innovations will deliver their value.
Cycle time, Newbury said, will remain a major driver for adoption, with the overwhelming majority of apparel companies still looking to cut as many as four weeks from their development calendars. But rather than assume this is a simple cost saving measure, Newbury reminded the audience that the agility and additional creativity it enables are likely to be the real source of value.
He also pointed to three key strategies for the future development of any retail, footwear and apparel organisation: the strengthening of strategic relationships with domestic and international suppliers; achieving end-to-end visibility into the product lifecycle, and vertical integration of both manufacturing operations and data.
Newbury cautioned delegates not to think of the sheer speed of innovation as a threat – something easily done when “disruptive” organisations like Uber and Netflix have essentially decimated entire industries with their success – but as an opportunity that can be segmented into what he sees as six key areas. These were the cloud, mobility, the internet of things, PLM, 3D sample management, and the rise of smart factories.
Echoing Elia and Steckmeyer’s perspectives on the cloud, Newbury cited the value that Brooks Brothers (the American tailoring giants) had derived from moving their on-premise ERP solution to the cloud. According to their published results, Brooks Brothers managed this migration in three short months, improving job satisfaction, becoming fully audit-compliant, and transforming the capabilities and capacity of their internal IT department along the way.
This is a tall order for a three-month project, but also another strong example of the unrecognised potential of out-sourcing the burden of implementation and maintenance. When we think of low-cost cloud solutions, we tend to assume that businesses will use them to circumvent the need for costly, expert IT staff entirely; in reality, larger organisations will choose to retain those resources, and use their expertise in more productive ways.
Leading by example, Newbury said, Gerber has relocated all of its PLM quality assurance to the cloud. His team are now able to alter and test code in minutes, and proof of concept servers that would traditionally have been set up on-site, in conjunction with customer’s IT professionals, can now be spun up remotely in a few hours.
Part of the same shift in enterprise attitudes to the cloud, he added, has been the move towards mobility – whether that takes the form of e-commerce in applications, or new versions of Gerber’s YuSnap inspiration application for iOS and Android.
Third on his list was PLM, and Newbury cited research suggesting that “there is nearly no way to compete at the top levels of today’s fashion business without a well-developed and fully-supported PLM process”. This is obviously something WhichPLM has written about extensively, but it’s encouraging to see PLM remain at the forefront of innovation, when, as an essentially ‘back end’ system, it would be easy to multi-product vendors to focus their attentions on more immediately gratifying and attractive prospects like 3D.
“PLM has been around for a while” Newbury said, “but it keeps getting refined and improved, and we believe it remains the critical data hub and enabler for any integrated workflow”.
Speaking about YuniquePLM version 7 – later showcased by Product Manager Clayton Parker – Newbury highlighted increased configurability, notifications, Excel integration and deeper links between PLM and the other parts of Gerber’s complete digital solution.
Readers of WhichPLM’s 5th Edition will already be well aware of the potential of 3D working to reduce the astronomical cost of physical sampling – but those in the audience who hadn’t yet picked up a copy of the publication were then treated to a quote (provided by Asaf Landau) articulating the $6 to $8 billion the industry spends annually on creating physical samples – 75% of which can be handled digitally instead.
Newbury also pointed to Australian brand CUE, whose Senior Technical Designer, Anthony Walker, believes AccuMark 3D has allowed them to cut one or two samples per week – an initially underwhelming figure, until you take stock of the monetary saving, which Walker believes to be hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
For Gerber and many other industry figures and analysts, the internet of things (hereafter IoT) and smart factories – Newbury’s next key area of innovation – are inextricably linked. Some have applied the label “industry 4.0” to the confluence of connectivity and automation that the IoT implies (1.0 being the steam engine, 2.0 the conveyor belt, and 3.0 numerically-controlled cutting and PLM, according to Newbury) and Newbury badges the fourth iteration as being about “a new level of analytics and information management”.
WhichPLM is currently speaking to Gerber Technology and a host of other vendors and influencers about the future of IoT – something that a recent study predicts will deliver a slightly woolly estimate of $8 trillion in value over the next decade. For the present, though, Elia tells us that Gerber has worked on the IoT under different labels for the past seven years, citing connected cutters and intelligent, predictive maintenance as the current applications, with manufacturing dashboards in the immediate future.
“Whether it’s the factory itself, looking to improve productivity,” Elia says, “or the people who commissioned the factory and who need to know where in the manufacturing cycle their products are, the IoT will redefine what it means to be connected”.
Gerber are one of very few vendors who bridge that gap between software and hardware, and as a result their take on the IoT is informed by the needs of manufacturers as much as it is by the requirements of brands and retailers who have both product development and consumer applications to consider. It became clear from listening to both Elia and Newbury talk that smart connectivity looms large in both Gerber’s future and the future of the entire industry, As with any evolving technology, the way vendors and customers approach the IoT, and the impact that connected future will have is something that will become evident over time – and will be covered in more depth in WhichPLM’s upcoming 6th Edition publication.
The future, though, remained a central topic for the participants in this year’s panel discussion, with moderator Brant Cooper (Founder of lean startup experts Moves The Needle) calling this “an amazing time to be alive, with technology disrupting so many industries at once, and everyone in this audience responsible in their own way for turning the fashion industry on its head”.
Cooper had the benefit of a terrific group of thinkers to back his assertions up: Bill Grier of domestic manufacturing vanguards AM4U; designer and 3D printing advocate Danit Peleg; Kenton Lee of the charity organisation The Shoe That Grows; Flo McDavid of body scanning organisation Body Labs; KP Reddy of SoftWear Automation; Pierre Steckmeyer from AWS, and Gerber’s own Mary McFadden.
“The reason we’re all so customer focused,” Cooper said, “is that we have to be: customers are smarter than ever, and our brand is no longer something we actually own – it lives and dies on the strength of our relationship with the customer”.
A significant component of that relationship for a fashion business is loyalty, and as McDavid explained, fit and the shopping experience remain the keys to encouraging a customer to return. “For fit to work, we need clothes and we need bodies to fit them to,” McDavid says, “and for virtual fit to work, we need digital clothes and digital bodies to fit them to – but this brings the added benefit of predictability, allowing designers to work in 3D and know with certainty what the end result will look like, before they have to create anything physical”.
And there was little chance of any delegate avoiding 3D designs at ideation2015, particularly those bold pieces printed (and later worn in a catwalk show alongside student designs inspired by the vintage Darnell Collection) by designer Danit Peleg, who described the virtual to physical workflow as an empowering experience. “I felt so independent, working that way, “Peleg said, “and I feel as though eventually fashion will go the way of the music business – allowing individual creators to offer their designs through their own websites, for customers to download what they want”.
This may sound like a chilling proclamation for anyone else in the audience who remembered the damage wrought by musicians and labels who refused to play along with the digital revolution. Luckily, Peleg’s comment sparked a lively discussion between Cooper and Reddy about the topic of intellectual property and security in an all-digital workflow.
“I think that if you’re delivering value and innovating that quickly,” Reddy responded, “then it will become difficult for piracy to have as much of an impact”. His point was a valid one – that rapid development will always place creators one step ahead of their legal or illegal imitators – and Reddy also believes that price and convenience will always be secondary considerations to brand and authenticity, but I personally believe that the fashion industry (particularly outside of fast fashion) ignores the broader implications of 3D printing at its peril.
That pessimism about human nature proved hard to sustain for long, though, and dissipated as soon as Lee began to tell his story – delivered as part of the panel discussion, and also as a later presentation in its own right. Working in Nairobi, Kenya in 2007, Lee was inspired by a girl whose shoes were clearly too small for her feet (one of 300 million children without adequate footwear), and set out to try and create an adaptable shoe that could scale over a period of several years, providing young people in struggling regions with shoes that grow as they do.
With no experience of footwear design or of the industry as a whole, Lee partnered with 3D CAD and 3D print specialists in Portland Oregon, and now thousands of pairs of their designs adorn and protect the feet of children.
A world away from cost-cutting and lean manufacture is, as Lee explained, this sense that the privilege of profitability should be motivation enough to look beyond the bottom line. Quoting the time-honoured Spider-Man line (“with great power comes great responsibility”), he explained that the companies gathered there in the hall, in one of the most opulent places on earth, shared a very potent power, but also the responsibility to use it for good.
Lee’s story was met with rapturous applause, but he was keen to remind delegates that corporate social responsibility (another topic covered in detail by WhichPLM previously) should not be considered an obligation to be hand-waved away when they got home, but rather another opportunity. “The coolest thing to me is that, in the midst of all this amazing technology, it ‘s still the people who work at your companies that really create your products,” Lee said. “And if you, as company leaders, decide that social responsibility matters to you, then the people working for you suddenly have this chance to really help others simply by being good at what they do – bringing a whole new kind of meaning to their jobs.”
Lee’s story also resonates because, as Cooper summarised, “true visionaries aren’t the ones who predict the most accurately, but rather those who relentlessly pursue the change they want to see in the world”.
This attitude is, in my opinion, emblematic of the spirit of ideation. This report has focused by design on the direct news Gerber Technology itself announced in the general sessions. But away from the main conference hall, in the breakout rooms, in the hallways, and even over lunch, people everywhere at ideation2015 were working together, experimenting, and influencing the development of the tools they need to help create a brighter future. From hands-on experiences to case studies, and from educational sessions to a high-gloss keynote delivered by Project Runway personality and fashion consultant Tim Gunn.
Although Gunn is perhaps best known (at least in the United States) as a television celebrity, he also serves as Chair of the Fashion Design Program at the Parsons School of Fashion and Design – an organisation that he revealed was initially hesitant to adopt technology, particularly at the speed demanded by the modern apparel industry. Gunn’s personal anecdotes resonated with the broader theme of ideation, and he agreed that while innovation plays a critical role in the evolution of the fashion industry, retailers, brands, and educational establishments have historically been slow to embrace it. Gunn closed by stating his personal belief – one that WhichPLM shares – that a modern fashion education must also be a technological one, if the next generation of designers are to flourish in a competitive, ever-changing market.
In this way, what ideation represents is more than just an industry show, with its glitz, glamour and helicopter rides over the strip and the soundless sweep of the desert. (More than a few evening revellers made it into a chopper at the customer appreciation event, getting to see the bright lights, Belaggio fountains, and the and other iconic Vegas landmarks from the air.) In a world where – as the banners festooning the halls reminded us – everything’s changed, the chance to work towards a common vision is one of the strongest ways of bringing people together.
As KP Reddy put it, striving to do things cheaper, faster and better – as all apparel industry technologies are designed to do – is only part of the picture. Everyone within a company must share in a common vision: a way of using these new, potentially revolutionary tools to generate something positive – whether it’s a better-fitting shirt, a shoe that grows, a line of 3D printed dresses, or a confident statement that nobody in your supply chain is being exploited.
In his opening address, Elia said that “you’ll hear us talk a lot about digital systems and digital solutions, but what we mean is creating an integrated, seamless flow from concept to consumer,” or a way of taking an idea, however wild, from the people who conceived it to the people it benefits.
And if communities generate great ideas, then the major thing I took from ideation2015 was that people brought together, empowered by technology that they have the chance to debate and shape, create even stronger ones.
This report covers the key announcements and themes from ideation2015. An exclusive interview with Bill Brewster, Vice President of Enterprise Software Solutions at Gerber Technology, will follow, covering the outcomes of break-out sessions, the inspiration behind the vendor’s latest developments, and its plans for the coming year.
Gerber Technology’s next ideation event will take place from September 28th to 30th at the Ritz Carlton, South Beach, Miami. WhichPLM will be in attendance.