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Ideation 2019: The WhichPLM Report

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Ben Hanson has recently returned from New York City, where he attended Gerber Technology’s Ideation 2019. Reporting for WhichPLM, here he shares a deep-dive exclusive into the success of the event this year.

Ideation 2019, the latest in Gerber Technology’s long-running series of marquee events, wasn’t my first Ideation – but it was the first time Gerber and I had got together under our current guises.

Ideation (which is normally stylised with a lower-case “i” but I’m presenting it capitalised for ease of reading) is a different event to the standard software industry template. Where a lot of single-vendor shows are preened and polished, Ideation is more of a peek behind the curtain. It’s an opportunity for Gerber customers – whether they use PLM, 2D CAD, 3D, cutting hardware or any combination of the components that make up Gerber’s product offering – to go hands-on with every part of that portfolio. It’s an open door bearing a sign that says “here’s what we’ve been up to”.

And Ideation draws a more diverse crowd than the typical software event as a result. Not exclusively top-flight decisionmakers; not just up-and-coming-designers; not only patternmakers. Ideation attracts a mixture of them all.

This isn’t to say that Ideation 2019 was short on glitz and glamour, though. While arguably the real work was going on in breakout sessions, the main stage was home to a keynote from Rent The Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss, as well as a bona fide fashion show suffused with out-there ideas and technical materials. And the capstone of the event was the launch of Gerber’s brand-new Innovation Center – a gorgeous space which packs real office space and a cutting-edge microfactory – more on that later – into 18,000 square feet of prime Chelsea real estate.

This year’s Ideation also took place in Times Square – right in the arteries of arguably the biggest fashion and retail destination on the planet. I’m sure this was not a coincidence. And while I didn’t get a chance to see much of the city this time around, I’ll tell you this much: the vertiginous view from the 36th floor of the Marriott Marquis is pretty killer.

That brings me back around to how Gerber, and I, have changed since the last time I attended Ideation, in 2012.

Back then, the event was no less focused on giving customers hands-on time with new developments, but it also had the feel of a corporate retreat. It took place at a palatial golf resort in the Phoenix desert, where a band played poolside, and I had to give up partway through a steak that looked like the full left flank of a cow.

But it’s not just the surroundings that were different this time around. In the intervening seven years, Gerber itself has undergone some fairly significant changes behind the scenes. In 2012, the company had spent just over a year in private ownership, after being public since 1961. Four years later, Gerber was sold again, to American Industrial Partners, which remains its current owner. And in that span of time, Gerber has seen a comprehensive executive reshuffle.

No surprises here, but I’ve also grown older between 2012 and 2019. And aside from losing a lot of hair (I really need to ask the WhichPLM team to update my by-line photo) I’ve also graduated from working in the shadows. In 2012 I was an observer, pen and camera in hand; this year I was invited to lead a panel discussion on the main stage, talking about the roles and responsibilities of technology in delivering a new era of more sustainable manufacturing.

In that same time, I’ve also spent a bit of time working away from the retail technology industry. I never took both feet out, but suffice it to say that I’ve seen how software companies operate across a range of other industries, and this has given me a new frame of reference for assessing what I saw at Ideation 2019. And as you’ll see in WhichPLM’s upcoming evaluation of Gerber Technology and its YuniquePLM platform – coming very soon – I think Gerber has come the closest of any major vendor to delivering what’s expected of a truly modern software business.

So, let’s talk vital statistics. Ideation 2019 occupied a full floor of the massive Marriott Marquis, from 23rd to 25th October, pulling in more than 360 guests from 18 countries. They joined more than 60 Gerber employees in the packed main sessions that bookended both days of the event, and then split into groups to attend separate breakout sessions.

(I want to note that this year’s Ideation featured the first Executive Forum – a separate, highly-curated track of sessions that was restricted to senior figures and that was, I’m told, far more popular than Gerber had expected. I opted, though, to confine myself to experiencing the same show as other Gerber customers and prospects; I wanted to get a real feel for the portfolio as a whole, and to drift between rooms, gauging the reactions of a properly cross-disciplinary audience. Of course this meant I had to choose which sessions to attend when the agenda was split, so this report is by no means exhaustive.)

Outside of the main sessions, which took place in the conference hall, Ideation 2019 had as many as seven different breakout sessions running at any one time – for a total of more than 30 sessions spread over two full days. At any given moment, delegates could be learning new tricks for AccuMark®(Gerber’s 2D CAD solution), experiencing the latest version of YuniquePLM®, with its brand new user experience, working through a guided sessions on the creation of digital samples, or exploring the value of barcodes and QR codes in factory automation.

If that variety hasn’t already clued you in, I’ll point out again that Gerber remains very much a portfolio business. Although YuniquePLM is central to the company’s end-to-end vision (and is obviously a focus for a publication called WhichPLM) at no point during the event could anyone forget that physical hardware – cutters and plotters – join 2D CAD, 3D simulation, and patternmaking tools in a very broad, digital picture.

And as a portfolio business, it made perfect sense for the opening session to be kicked off with a unifying vision for all those different moving parts – delivered by Gerber Technology CEO Mohit Uberoi. Uberoi has been steering the company for more than two years, which is a period of time he referred to as being necessary for Gerber’s transformation into “a technology-enabled, end-to-end productivity solutions partner.”

As unifying visions go, that’s a comprehensive – some might say too broad – one. But Uberoi made a compelling case for why he sees this as the right strategy direction for the company. Gerber, as he told it, can deliver the most value to its customers through “end-to-end capabilities” and cross-product integrations that provide a single thread of data and improve productivity. This does not, however, preclude partnerships with other technology partners – many of whom were showcased at the event. From bodyscanning company Sizestream, to threads provider A&E; from Fabric Design software provider Pointcarre to Digital Printing company Kornit – and more.

Gerber’s differentiator, then, is what Uberoi called: “The end-to-end journey – from PLM to CAD, combined with state of the art hardware, with seamless integration through to print, cut, and sew.” And he is convinced that, for a brand, retailer, or manufacturer that shares that vision for an all-digital future, “Gerber Technology are going to be the best partner for today and for the future”.

Of course, it’s his job to say that. But Uberoi also came armed with the figures to back it up: between the new Innovation Center (which is an official title, so I’ve foregone my usual insistence on British spelling) and ongoing R&D, engineering, and development work, Gerber has invested more than $20 million in delivering an end-to-end flow of data. That investment appears to have paid off; the company has added more than 200 new customers in the last 12 months. (NB: This is a portfolio-wide figure, and a PLM-specific breakdown of Gerber’s customer base is included in WhichPLM’s freely-available 2019 Buyer’s Guide.)

And if the “data” portion of Gerber’s end-to-end vision was at all in doubt, Uberoi pointed to CIO Review naming the company one of the 20 most promising big data solution providers in 2019. “With such a heavy focus on data, and analytics, and using these to improve productivity, even external influencers are noticing what Gerber Technology is doing,” Uberoi said.

Uberoi then brought key Gerber management on stage, including Karsten Newbury (newly minted as Chief Strategy & Digital Officer), Melissa Roger (Senior Vice President and General Manager Software Solutions) Lenny Marano (VP of Product Management & Marketing for Gerber’s Automation Systems), Ketty Pillet (VP Marketing), Mary McFadden (VP of CAD Product Management), Clayton Parker (Director of PLM Product Management) and Rodolfo Ramirez (|Director of Product Management, Manufacturing Solutions AccuPlan & AccuNest g. One, however, was Melissa Rogers, who joined Gerber from Autodesk in summer 2019, and whose level of energy I definitely couldn’t match before 9AM in the wrong timezone.

Newbury, along with Pillet, served as both the scene-setter and the compere and moderator for several of the main sessions, and he followed Uberoi with a presentation that established the wider market context that has informed Gerber’s strategy during its two-year transformation. And he did it all while wearing the first digitally-printed, fully-custom garment that came off the line at the Innovation Center’s “factory of the future”.

His presentation was stat-heavy, in a good way, but I definitely don’t have the space to reproduce it all here. In essence, though, Newbury painted a picture of change: markets in turmoil, economies worsening, and an exploding resale market that seems to run counter to the business of making and selling new fashions. But throughout his session ran a thread of optimism and opportunity, underlining the idea that, if brands and retailers can move past the traditional model of planning, creating, and then stuffing channels with inventory and hoping it sells, then a whole new kind of success awaits.

What might that new model look like? Ideation 2019 attendees saw it in action that very evening, at the Innovation Center, but Newbury also wrapped it up with what he saw as the three key digital workflows that will be essential to delivering the future of agile, responsive fashion:

  1. Digital product development, encompassing 2D CAD, 3D simulation, and PLM.
  2. On-demand production, and made to order – exemplified in the Innovation Centermicrofactory.
  3. A cheaper, more sustainable, form of high-volume manufacturing – something that’s still open to interpretation.

To achieve even one of these, businesses will need to invest in technology. But Newbury hit on a question that’s probably on a lot of lips when it comes to this kind of whole-cloth digital transformation: can anyone actually do all of it, and where do I start?

Newbury had an answer that I liked. As well as the obvious – letting the clearest benefits shape your investments, such as reducing a pool of 10 physical prototypes down to 2 – brands and retailers should let the consumer market influence what technology they adopt. And to that end, he told the audience that 75% of consumers want some form of personalisation, and a quarter of them are already prepared to pay more to get it.

Echoing Uberoi, Newbury talked a lot about Gerber’s goal of having something to offer wherever you choose to put your initial investment. As he put it, “We’re excited about not just providing productivity tools, but having a strategic focus to be a platform that helps you respond quickly to the market, and to make great products that fit.”

Newbury then invited out a technology expert panel, made up of Gerber figures who also then led the separate sessions that made up most of the breakouts sessions over the course of the event. So, to save your time (and my typing fingers) I’m going to quickly sum up the main points of their various appearances here.

Clayton Parker (along with his core team members, Alev Seyit and Robbie Pannell) brought the audience up to speed on the latest developments in YuniquePLM. These included more than 150 new enhancements, and a move to continuous development enabled by a new cloud-native architecture – all of which our upcoming evaluation will cover in real detail.

Rodolfo Ramirez, who is Gerber’s Director of Product Management Manufacturing Solutions, talked passionately about the business value of the “continuous story” of software to hardware integration, and the benefits of an end-to-end platform that he sees as having already delivered massive savings for manufacturers (to the tune of $2 million per year across fabric utilisation and labour) as well as the new generation of brands and retailers who want to know more about their suppliers’ manufacturing processes and exert greater control over cost and sustainability.

Mary McFadden took the on-stage opportunity to announce that the AccuMark patternmaking solution was now available on a subscription basis (in North America at first, and then globally by the end of the year) and that Gerber was now offering discounted bundles for AccuMark and AccuMark 3D – which reinforced my impression that Gerber is keen to reposition AccuMark as a contender in the 3D space.

McFadden also led a session the following day titled “3D And All Its Applications,” where she talked about how a single, high-fidelity 3D asset can add value across the business – everywhere from fit correction and validation to sales presentation and marketing. Sharing a common source of data in this way, and conducting multiple cycles of design, alteration, and simulation creates what she called “an easy, iterative loop”. This is something WhichPLM has been talking about since 2015, when we referred to the use of 3D from design to marketing as “create once and re-use”.

Last on this panel was Lenny Marano, who covered similar ground here as he did during a dedicatory microfactory breakout session – and as a member of my sustainability panel. Let’s just say Marano had his plate full, but as the man tasked with really articulating the unison of software and hardware that will bring Gerber’s end-to-end vision to life, it’s no wonder so much attention fell on him – and I felt he did a strong job of explaining the microfactory concept, so I’ll let him fill you in:

“It’s about starting with a white roll of material at one end. After an end-to-end design process using 2D and 3D CAD, fed by PLM, your product data is passed to RIP software [the software that drives a digital material printer] with an ICC colour profile embedded. That printed material is then passed to a GERBERcutter® Z1 with ContourVision™, so it only prints the patterns that are actually going to be cut, and print sync aligns the speed of the printer with the speed of the cutter, so there’s no need for manual transfer.”

Marano also mentioned the insights and metrics that the microfactory machinery could generate, as well as the role of connected sewing machines in providing a similar level of visibility into labour operations. In short, using predominantly digital processes, the microfactory is a proof of concept that can turn raw material into a finished garment – all in one room.

But despite a clear explanation, some of the audience initially struggled with the microfactory concept – misinterpreting the idea as being a service that Gerber was offering to its customers. Marano, again, did an excellent job of setting the record straight:

“We’re not changing industries to become manufacturers; we’re showcasing what’s possible by putting all these solutions together. A factory is about more than just heavy iron. It’s about the software layer that integrates it all, and that ensures that all the right information is embedded. Customers regularly tell us that they don’t just need a cutter, they need a manufacturing platform… and that’s what we’ve tried to bring to life.”

To be clear: the key benefit of manufacturing on this kind of micro-scale is response time. While sustainability, transparency, and cost are also important factors, being able to produce short runs of garments, without excessive labour cost, to respond more quickly to market trends and cater to consumers’ desire for personalisation is likely to make for a compelling business case – especially when markdowns on excess inventory already cost retailers $300billion a year, according to Marano.

And that link between small-scale automation and value was underline in a later panel discussion, when J. Kirby Best, Chairman of Alabama’s OnPoint Manufacturing said: “Our motto is that if we touch [the garment during manufacture] we’ve lost money on it. Automation is everything.”

At this point I’ve danced around it enough. You’ve heard Gerber’s interpretation of the microfactory, you have an idea of how similar automated, digital manufacturing facilities are able to survive in the race to the bottom on labour costs… so what did I think when the event moved over there for a lively launch party?

On stage, Elizabeth King, Gerber’s VP of Digital Strategy (who was one of the primary architects of the entire Innovation Centre) called it “a unique tech experience,” and that’s a statement I’m inclined to agree with – if only for the fact that it brings a host of different technologies into a single space. But in its most basic sense it’s this: a large room inside Gerber’s massive new Innovation Center, containing a Kornit Presto digital printer synchronised with a GERBERcutter Z1, with its cut pieces then being passed to connected Juki sewing machines for assembly. All of this is driven by a mockup ecommerce website that visitors can use to customise a small selection of garments by inputting their measurements, selecting materials, and choosing from different components for necklines, sleeve lengths and so on.

For me, the fascinating part of the microfactory was not the hardware itself – although I recognise that the launch party was many people’s first exposure to the modern face of digital, direct to fabric printing. Instead, I came away impressed by the back-end systems and integrations that allow a single set of key product data to make the journey from initial digital design right through to finished physical product.

Every single product that came off the line that evening (and beyond, thanks to some unsung heroes who worked through the night) passed through a CAD solution, through AccuMark 2D and 3D, through PLM, through AccuNest™, and then through intermediary RIP software that ensures colour accuracy as the patterns are communicated to the printer. So, although the logistics of getting all that hardware into one room are impressive – I’m told entire banks of windows needed to be removed – for me the real achievement is making sure that all of them can talk to one another, with YuniquePLM serving as the common data hub.

It’s no wonder, then, that while the launch party spanned the Innovation Center as a whole, the bulk of the attention was concentrated in the microfactory. And this is no small feat when you consider that, just a few doors away, was a terrace with views that swept as far as Staten Island on one side, and a good distance uptown on the other.

Replicating the microfactory vision at an industrial scale will be another matter entirely, but for that evening everyone – me included – came away impressed by the fact that a theory that had been discussed on stage for most of the day was already up and running. And while Gerber may not own all the technology in the microfactory itself, what they can stake a claim to is bringing the on-demand vision to life. It can’t have been easy.

The remainder of my time at Ideation 2019 was crammed with different sessions – far too many to recount here – so I’d like to single out two for particular praise, and one as a warning for the entire industry.

Jenny Fleiss, Co-Founder of Rent The Runway (RTR) was the keynote speaker on the main stage, where she talked about both the market forces that led her to the idea for RTR, and her new venture: JetBlack.

Although her talk was a world away from the upstream revolution of on-demand, digital manufacturing, it was no less fascinating. I imagine a rental model via a third party would not have been top of the list if you’d asked brands a decade ago how they’d like to reach consumers in the future, but the context Fleiss set out (charting the industry’s progress from brick and mortar to omni-channel experience) made it seem almost like an inevitability.

JetBlack, which is currently being trialled in New York City, is a conversational commerce company using what sounds like a simple offer – $50 a month allows consumers to order anything “from paper towels to Gucci loafers” – as a testbed for training and refining new machine learning models that she believes will help shoppers trust digital assistants, through text and voice, to order almost anything for them.

As Fleiss put it, “time is the greatest luxury,” and while eCommerce has put infinite variety at people’s fingertips, it has done little for convenience. Shoppers still need to spend time validating recommendations, so if JetBlack can solve this problem, allowing people to order replenishment items and, eventually, receive recommendations from digital assistants, then it stands to help usher in a new era of consumer confidence.

I also particularly enjoyed the presentation delivered by Amir Shaked-Mandel of Kornit, whose printer is one of the cornerstones of the Innovation Center. Mandel articulated what Kornit sees as the unfulfilled opportunities in fashion today: the ability to offer endless variety and even resurrect vintage designs; the ability to deliver true personalisation; and the ability to completely control the brand experience, without relying on marketplaces. All of these, he explained, rely on a supply chain that can deliver on the vision of “one off manufacturing” – something that Kornit’s single-step fabric and garment printing is designed to enable.

I also attended what I thought was a genuinely interesting session, delivered by Gerber’s Amit Kumar and Glenn Rachlin of AWS. As our upcoming YuniquePLM evaluation will show, the cloud architecture that underpins the solution is an essential component of its promise of continuous upgrades, scalable usage, and cast-iron reliability. So I’d expected this session to be bustling, when in fact only five or six people (including me) showed up. This is no slight on Kumar or Rachlin – both of whom knew the technology inside out – but rather evidence of the fact that PLM users and decision makers still do not really understand the impact that multi-tenant, cloud-native PLM is about to have on our industry. I intend to cover this in more detail here on WhichPLM soon.

Of course, I also moderated a panel discussion dedicated to exploring the role that technology (especially on-demand manufacturing) will play in improving the sustainability of the apparel industry. I had the honour of being joined by an expert of 3D, Geber’s Enrico Zamarra, Lenny Marano, who has an enviable oversight of both hardware and software, Amir Shaked-Mandel from Kornit, and Jimmy Summers of Elevate Textiles, who has spent a lot of his career improving the environmental credentials of materials, threads, and denim dyeing.

Our on-stage conversation was far-ranging, but the conclusion was clear. The consumer appetite for a new, more sustainable model is obvious, and the business case for moving at least a portion of manufacturing to on-demand is compelling; an alarming amount of products made are never even sold. Quite how the transition from micro to macro scale will happen, nobody could quite say, but using the microfactory proof-of-concept as a lens for scrutinising the outdated practices of the high-volume, offshore sourcing model reveals a huge slate of opportunities for practicing similar methods on an industrial scale.

As one of the final sessions on the main stage – followed only by the student fashion show and a final wrap-up from Gerber’s executive team – I hadn’t made it far off-stage before I was beckoned back on to collect a long-sleeved technical top I’d completely forgotten customising and having made at the microfactory the night before.

(They say you shouldn’t grocery shop on an empty stomach, and I can add to that advice and tell you not to blindly order a customer-built garment on just a few canapes and whiskies. You’re likely to underestimate your waist measurements and overestimate how much bench pressing you’ve been doing).

Picking that garment up gave me pause – the way that having a tangible output of an otherwise totally digital process tends to. Because while it’s becoming more and more common to see bits and pieces of the future – indeed it’s an occupational hazard in this line of work – it’s not every day you get to see these pieces slotted together before your eyes.

And while it’s true that Gerber has been on something of a journey to get to this stage, I can’t help but feel as though they fill a rolet he PLM industry for fashion and retail need filling. A company that brings everything together through open APIs and integrations – whether they own all the pieces or not – and adds value that way. A company that’s pursuing affordability and accessibility perhaps further than anyone else. A company that’s willing to let customers and prospects put together their own agenda at their event, and to take their software for a spin from the comfort of their homes.

And if that’s not a modern software company, I don’t know what is.

Look for WhichPLM’s complete evaluation of Gerber Technology and the latest version of YuniquePLM this month.

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.