In today’s exclusive, WhichPLM’s Founder & CEO shares his thoughts on changing technological architecture in Fashion. Mark discusses platform-ecosystems and the next ‘big shift’ in the way we deploy software.
Technology architecture is clearly on the move again. We have experienced several architectural shifts over the last couple of decades, since PLM came to the fashion industry in the early 2000s. PLM started its life based upon a client-server model, and its next shift came when it advanced to the cloud (SaaS). And, although the infrastructure changed, the solutions actually stayed the same as they were still heavily customised in the main. The next change came about when vendors went down the road of configuration versus customisation – a big software change that helped to simplify matters and reduce costs. After this we went through the recent OOTB (out of the box) period, with several PLM vendors coming to market with multitenant solutions – something I’ve written about at length in the past.
So, what’s happening right now and what can we expect to come as part of the next big shift in the way that we deploy software?
In recent times several fashion technology businesses, together with several brands and retailers, have started to scope, design and come to the market with exciting new technology platform-ecosystems that are designed to encapsulate a broad range of solutions that, today, we call ‘’point solutions. Point solutions are typically designed to solve one problem specific to a business, like 2D CAD (Pattern Engineering & Marker Making), 2D Creative Design, or 3D Design & Development. These solutions offer specialisation and focus linked to the use-cases and processes that they manage. Point solutions are clearly the best solutions to support these specific use-cases; they deliver advanced features and functionality to help deliver the best possible results. But, the overriding strength of a point solution is also its weakness: the software only solves one business issue and, more often than not, they operate in a silo with data outputs being challenging to share with other solutions that in turn require the data inputs, all in a timely manner.
To solve multiple challenges, brands and retailers must select and implement multiple point solutions within their businesses, but this still doesn’t solve the problem of real-time automation and dynamic data sharing. Data inputs and outputs from each of these point solutions should, ideally, be shared dynamically between all solutions within the business and across its value-partner network. Most fashion retailers, brands and manufacturers are currently operating on an outdated point solution model. At best they have implemented a PLM system with limited integrations, most of which are not capable of operating and sharing data in real-time across the entire solution stack. In turn, these solutions are causing severe delays when it comes to the sharing of data. They are constantly struggling with the complexities of developing multiple real-time interfaces, and with the inconsistency of data that leads to users developing their own workarounds, as well as a high risk of systems that are simply not synchronised, with no single version of the ‘facts’.
So, how might we resolve this problem? Unlike point solutions, integrated solutions are designed from the outset to solve multiple business problems from within one software solution (platform-ecosystem) that can share data across all applications. An integrated solution platform allows businesses to purchase and implement just one software platform-ecosystem that ensures that data used by all applications is stored consistently and only once. It also supports automatic connections between modules, processes and ultimately facilitates data insights and intelligence coming from AI/ML (Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning) that will be delivered from smart algorithms able to mine a unified dataset.
The design and implementation of a platform ecosystem is many times more complex to scope and design when compared to a standalone point solution. On the other hand data exchange between processes is far easier and can help to create greater insights and intelligence coming from the real-time data streams.
An open platform can be made up of components (applications) that can be open as well as closed. For example, Apple & Microsoft both offer open APIs and levels of source code, yet most of their source code is closed and proprietary. Open platform vendors allow for certain components of their software to be edited, modified, and adapted for different functionalities. This allows for greater connectivity to new applications that, in the past, would be considered point solutions. Open standards that are made publicly available via SDK toolkits offer non-proprietary apps to be added to the platform-ecosystem. These API & SDK toolkits allow third party apps to access the building blocks of the platform-ecosystem.
Almost all PLM solutions have been designed as closed proprietary solutions. At best they offer several interfaces to core solutions, for example: approved BOM (Bill of Materials) data that will be shared with the company’s ERP system; integrations to the Adobe Suite; and, more recently, basic integrations to standalone 3D solutions. However, when a PLM solution becomes dominant, the role of the PLM provider can become problematic in that they tend to be limited to certain third party solution integrations. For example, a dominant or even mid-sized PLM provider will be limited to the number and choice of integrations covering a broad range of solutions. Or, they may not be willing to provide an integration to certain solutions that, for whatever reason, they don’t wish to partner with, often due to commercial issues, meaning that the retailer, brand, or manufacturer will need to seek manual data workarounds.
Today’s technological and economic forces associated with the ever-growing demand for digital innovation are increasingly giving rise to new digital platform-ecosystems. They follow on the back of the giant platform firms, the poster children of the digital economy. The same danger for digital platforms will be their dominance. Now, of course this won’t matter for those brands and retailers that have started to build their own in-house platforms, but for those that hope to sell their platforms to businesses that don’t have the resources to develop their own in-house solutions, it’s going to be important that they not lose sight of what made them earn their position of dominance in the first place.
Platform-ecosystems will earn their place by acting as open foundations of innovation, facilitating exchange between a broad range of software applications, helping to unify and centralise data for use by all parties to help improve the incremental efficiency benefits. I am certain that there will be multiple platform-ecosystem models – some will be closed whilst other will be open, allowing software providers to develop apps that can simply be plugged into the platform just as we plug and remove apps from our mobile devices. It’s also not inconceivable that we could see the development of both private (in-house) and public platform-ecosystems that can be ‘glued’ together to create a universe of interconnected ecosystems.
One of the bigger challenges will be the commercial modelling, in how each of the app developers and platform businesses will share the revenues. Certainly an interesting challenge, but I’m sure that they will each find a fair solution to the question of revenue share and payment for use of the already-developed platforms, APIs and SDK toolkits which (will allow them to coexist on the platform), following similar lines to other well-established platforms that we all use in our daily lives.
Finally, let’s keep in mind that design, development, and manufacturing platforms will also share real-time data with the new Metaverse-platforms, helping to augment data assets into our virtual worlds.