In his fourth piece in an exclusive series for WhichPLM, fit expert Mark Charlton explores how lean product development can help brands and retailers achieve speed to market.
I have a passion for great fitting apparel and for over 20 years I have been helping brands fit apparel, understand sizing constructs and globalize fit offerings. In my previous articles I discussed the components of fit, the future of e-commerce apparel fit and the trend of customization.
For this piece I’d like to turn my attention to the product development process.
What strikes me as odd is that for over a decade lean manufacturing – the concept of eliminating waste and inefficiency from processes – has been present and continuously improved / refined over years in the garment manufacturing space.
Apparel manufacturers – at least, what I consider to be good ones – invest heavily in eliminating any possible inefficiency and waste, be it consumable or time, from any and all of the processes involved in the manufacturing chain of events: from goods in, through to cutting, pre-assembly, assembly, finishing, packing to goods out. Every (and I mean every) operation is timed, critiqued and reviewed to ensure maximum efficiency, then the whole chain of events is reviewed and re-reviewed to ensure maximum efficiency as one continues flow with minimum WIP (work in progress), to ensure maximum agility.
Garments are produced in minutes; an industry term for garment costing and gauging the efficiency of a factory is SMV (Standard Minute Value = the amount of minutes taken to produce a garment from start to finish).
Apparel manufacture is both hugely competitive and labour intensive therefore time equals money and the apparel manufacturers have been forced to ensure maximum efficiency across every stage of the manufacturing process.
Speed in all forms is a strategy most brands and retailers are chasing or implementing; how to get product that the consumer wants into the hands of the consumer faster.
The glaring opportunity I see is the product development process. The typical and accepted process is a baton-passing relay from:
- Design – creating a concept (generally a lengthy process and designs need to pass through many sketch reviews, internal conversations including buy in from stakeholders) could range from 3-6 weeks;
- To Technical Design and Product Development – who add the technical details, the manufacturing recipe to the design concept in order to relay the information to the factory. This process could range from 1-2 weeks. There is also a risk of loss of design intent due to interpretation.
- Then to the factory who receives the information and produces a sample. Assuming suitable fabrics and trims are in-house and ready the factories (again due to time = money) are efficient and will turn samples in 1-2 days pending volume of samples. However, here’s the pinch: most design / product development teams are located in a brand’s / retailer’s corporate headquarters and the factories located overseas, therefore samples are couriered back to the design / product development teams for review – 1-2 days if expedited, but more like 3-4 days.
The total comes to between 4.5 and weeks just to design and see a first prototype.Then the process continues: the 1st prototype is reviewed, fitted on a model for size and design intent replication, critiqued, commented upon and (pending the level of correctness) more samples will be requested, potentially a size run to check how the grading (difference between each size) has translated across the design.
Each round of sampling takes between 2-4 weeks. Most product development calendars are built on 2-3 rounds of samples. This is 6.5 weeks for the most efficient process and a more realistic and usual 12 weeks, or on the outside 17 weeks.
Once the design and product development teams are satisfied with the latest sample this is approved then production can start and the lean manufacturing process begins.
As a side note, I have heard of samples being delayed in the post room of corporate headquarters for multiple days at a time. This might sound minor, but would you give a factory 2-3 more days than required to manufacture production because it was ineffective at managing goods in? Never.
So what does lean product development look like?
As we have all witnessed and I am sure follow this trend ourselves, purchasing via e-commerce is becoming the new normal for most products. OK, purchasing apparel online has a huge nut to crack in the form of conveying apparel fit / fit intent digitally (see my article “The Future is Bright for e-Commerce Apparel Fit”), but for the most part consumers are used to buying digitally.
So, if our consumer is used to making a purchase decision digitally, isn’t it time we started to create, develop and make decisions digitally?
With advancements in 3D rendering technology, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and even holoportation, we do not need to see rounds and rounds of samples that take weeks to create, ship and review. Some companies are using, with great success, 3D design and development tools to ideate and refine prototypes in 3D. For the most part this is 3D design viewed on a 2D screen.
I see a future where we can create and develop product in a VR or AR space, even using holoportation (using a mixture of 3D cameras and VR headsets this is a virtual transfer of matter from one point to another without traversing the physical space between them; in this case garments from a factory and prototype reviews in real time).
This could reduce the product development process to days!
There is so much room for speed and efficiency savings in the product design and development process. Technology can, and will, be a disrupter to help brands achieve speed to market.