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Infinite Fashion

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Here, our own CEO, Mark Harrop, shares his thought leadership view on the current landscape of any Fashion business – technologically speaking. He delves into what WhichPLM has coined Fashion’s ‘infinity loop’, emphasizing the importance of digital integration.

The next wave of fashion technology integration is happening whilst I write my latest article on what I’m calling the subject of the ‘infinity loop’ in the RFA (Retail, Footwear & Apparel) and CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) industries I couldn’t help but think about how the world of fast fashion is now entering a new paradigm.

Let me explain briefly what I mean by the term ‘infinity loop’ in Fashion: essentially it’s the notion of a continuous helix, encompassing all the processes and technologies that are used within the current end-to-end Fashion model. In the next wave of change we can expect to see the traditional end-to-end linear process being adapted to a continuous infinity loop.

If we examine the term in a little more detail, we can find various definitions; the English dictionary throws up, “having no limits or boundaries in time, space, extent, or magnitude”, “extremely or immeasurably great or numerous”, “all-embracing, absolute, or total” and “having an unlimited or uncountable number of digits, factors, terms, members, etc.”.

I feel very strongly that our industry has now arrived at a point in time where the technology solutions that support each of our categories and their sub-processes have reached a level of parity and maturity that allow each of them to execute on the tasks at hand. Yes, I know that each solution vendor will argue that they can one-up their competition – and, really, that’s their job – but, putting that point aside for a moment, if we agree that these systems that have been in place within our industry for at least 10-15 years have indeed reached a level of parity in terms of their main software(s) features and functions (and we agree that the “low-hanging fruit” of PLM has already been picked) …then what’s next?

Before I answer that I want to make something clear: I’m not saying that we won’t continue to see newness in these technology platforms as they continue to broaden their solution offerings, both up and down stream. What I expect to see based upon the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with leading retailers and brands (and not to mention the project managers and users of solutions and of course the technology suppliers), is greater newness in the form of deeper integrations to other supporting platforms – the likes of digital storyboards, material(s) platforms, 2D pattern and marker systems, 3D true-to-life virtual design, digital printing of raw materials and components, and CGI (computer generated images) etc. These are just a few of the many solutions that are already being integrated into the PLM backbone; we are certainly not slowing down and will continue to see expansion, but rather than continuing to develop separate disconnected platforms the model is getting ready for what I believe is a sea of change in the continuous integration and collaboration between each of these platform solutions.

It’s time to rethink the business model

The next task for more than 1,500 customers of modern PLM solutions around the globe is how to create their own infinity value loop(s) by integrating the multiple platforms and the data inputs and outputs used ever second, minute, hour or day to plan, design, create, develop, source, manufacture, transport, warehouse, retail, sell, and replenish the cycle.

Businesses need to take a step back and look at the big picture and consider making changes to their whole activity network of partner systems, rather than continuing to focus on optimising an individual solution – providing of course that it’s been optimised in line with industry best-practice. Rethinking the entire business model is a tough ask for any business and is particularly challenging when the level of resistance to change is likely high. Today, businesses need to be bold and adapt to the next wave of change or opportunity to get out in front of the competition. In disruptive and quickly changing environments like we have today, looking at the big picture and acting upon it early can be a matter of corporate survival.

Technology vendors reading this article may wish to consider the opportunities in helping to join the many supporting solutions (integrations) around this infinity loop by developing open middlewares to enable faster, low cost integrations for their customers. Until now, I, and many likeminded individuals like me, would continue to use the phrase end-to-end supply chains; if we stop for a moment and consider the true meaning of this phrase then we would have the picture of a linear process starting at point A and ending at point H in the example below.

As our supply chains have become more fragmented and further dispersed, designing and managing the flow of data has become increasingly difficult, hence the significant growth of PLM platforms to help overcome the challenges of planning, trend analysis, designing, developing and sourcing physical products to the final customer. It’s even more challenging today, due to the need for ever faster fast fashion, and to deliver on ever faster speeds then we need to embrace the next wave of efficiency, speed and value – that can only come from working directly together with every multi-tier (1, 2 & 3) partner – and this includes integration to their platforms.

From planning, through everything in-between, all the way to track and trace right down to the final customer, our retail, footwear, and apparel technology has never been more diverse (as you can see from our example infinity loop diagram). Of course, we’ve only selected a handful of technologies so as not to over-complicate the diagram; if we included every single one it would actually be rather representative of the fragmented, inefficient and slow way in which we work today.

Many of these solutions have been around for decades and the “low hanging fruit” has already been picked. It’s very exciting to see the increased growth of technology newcomers supporting the lifecycle of fast fashion within our ‘Infinity loop’ – and the disruptive newcomers appear far easier to be integrated to older legacy solutions.

Today’s end-to-end supply chain models lack any ability to learn from what’s happened; they start and finish in the main without learning from the lifecycle of a product. In the future, businesses that develop ‘infinity loops’ will be able to tweak processes and algorithms as part of their and their machines learning. Solutions will be tweaked based on what’s worked well within each cycle of the loop, learning, shaping, redesigning, and reconstructing with each completion of the cycle – at the same time creating added value for everyone involved in the infinity loop.

How might it look?

So how might companies transform themselves from a traditional end-to-end supply chain to the ‘infinity loop’? Firstly, the fast fashion industry needs to step back and imagine its software solutions as methodologies rather than as just integrating software platforms, in the same way WhichPLM views all PLM related solutions (first and foremost as a methodology, and then as technology platforms). We need to rethink the supply chain model and start the journey to integrating each of these software platforms, partner tiers 1,2 & 3, and collect real-time data for the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) as we circle the loop, helping to enable real-time control, visibility and process improvements on each cycle!

Mark Harrop Mark Harrop is the founder and Managing Director of WhichPLM. During a career that has spanned more than four decades, Mark has worked tirelessly to further the cause of PLM – providing the unbiased, expert advice that has enabled some of the world’s best known retailers, brands and manufacturers achieve efficiency savings across their entire supply chain through informed technology investments.