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Platform Ecosystems & the Principles of Interoperability

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Is your PLM platform truly and fully open, or is it only partially open or even closed? This is a question that you should ask of your own PLM implementation and future transformation strategy. Today, if you visit the website of any PLM vendor, you’re almost guaranteed to read how companies are benefitting from ‘one version of the truth’, but is this true, or is this an exaggerated marketing claim? For it to be true, the PLM vendor would need to offer open and dynamic bi-directional interfaces with every solution application that resides in a typical brand, retailer and/or manufacturer’s solution ecosystem.

Consider a typical, mid-sized brand or retailer and the type of solutions used within their business and partner ecosystem: e-Comm, Trend, Pantone Live, Planning tools, Adobe Creative Suite, 2D CAD Pattern Engineering & Marker Making, 3D Design & Development tools, PLM, DAM, PIM, and ERP. Now, if you are one of these mid-sized brands or retailers, ask yourself whether all your solutions are sharing real-time dynamic data right now? I’m certain that in almost all cases the answer will be no, therefore, the claim of ‘one version of the truth’ is sadly very misleading.

Accepting the fact that, in the main, most solutions out there are still disconnected, then to achieve ‘one version of the truth’, future platform ecosystems will need to be completely rethought with a new emphasis on heavily dependent open systems. They will need to allow for a broad range of disparate information technology applications to coexist, seamlessly sharing their data with other applications that, when fully integrated, will allow eComm, Trend, Pantone colour, Planning, 2D, 3D, CAD, CAM, PLM, Costing, ERP, and manufacturing solutions to be connected and to benefit greatly from using the same shared real-time data to execute related tasks.

The ability for the fashion sector to use these principles to freely connect, share and communicate through platform ecosystems will be critical for businesses, individuals, and any related enterprises that will in turn use the shared data inputs & outputs across the extended value-chain. This new and extended remodelling will provide new levels of efficiencies that are currently out of the reach for most global businesses, regardless of the size and their ability to invest, since they continue to operate on outdated technology models. To achieve the new desired levels of efficiency, businesses will need to improve connectivity across all systems connecting real-time data that will support a new, seamless interoperable model that will bring together today’s disparate technology systems.

Interoperability enables a computer program to communicate and exchange data with other computer applications, with applications that can use the data linked to specific use-cases. An example might be body measurements, used by both PLM, 2D CAD & 3D applications. Another example might be the use of Pantone Live colours, used by multiple applications such as trend, planning, design, and material developments. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to solutions that will benefit from these shared real-time data inputs and outputs. To deliver the desired widespread interoperability across today’s loosely related applications (systems), this can only be achieved through reliance upon standard technology interfaces that establish clear rules on how to communicate between all applications that reside on the same shared platform ecosystems.

As discussed in my last article on platform ecosystems, some technology standards are ‘open’ whilst others are ‘restricted’ or in the worst case ‘closed,’ meaning they are unable to achieve the desired levels of interoperability that will enable greatly improved efficiencies across the value-chain. There are multiple ecosystem models in operation today; some offer greater or lesser benefits to integrate to those technologies and their users.

Platform ecosystems that are architected on open standards allow multiple vendor applications to interoperate with each other by designing their applications on the open standard rules. Beyond this, using open standards allows both customers and third party solution providers of these ecosystems to operate together seamlessly. What’s more, platform users will be able to choose the applications that best meets their day-to-day needs and, just like we do with our mobile devices, they will be able to switch applications at will without fear of losing functionality or control of their already stored data.

In the closed proprietary world (private company developed and owned source code), there are many restrictions on which vendors can join the solution platform (PLM, 3D, CAD/CAM, ERP, or similar ecosystem applications), which clearly impacts customer choice by limiting the customer’s preferred technology stack to integrate seamlessly. This closed proprietary approach can adversely affect market efficiency and competition. These closed proprietary models and their restrictive practices will result in a lack of access to shared standard data streams and data standardisation, expensive licensing costs for solution integration add-ons, or proprietary technical ‘API’ (application programe interface) hooks.

Experience demonstrates that open platform ecosystems help to deliver constant and rapid innovation, fair commercial opportunity for all stakeholders, lower cost of ownership for brands, retailers and manufacturers, and help to provide greater opportunity and choice for these businesses and their partners. Based upon my own experience I can reveal that a proprietary model more often delays innovation through the lack of competition; it also restricts commercial opportunity and greatly reduces customer choice when it comes to the applications that they use daily, all of which would ideally connect in real-time to the main platform ecosystem if only it was open and easy for all partners to deliver.

So, what can customers do to ensure interoperability through open standards?

  • Ensure that when you are embarking on a new platform-ecosystem, or you are upgrading your solution platform, that your requirements are built upon open standards from the outset, to allow your desired solution stack to dynamically operate and share real-time data together.
  • Only purchase open standard compliant solution applications and services that can be plugged in and/or removed from your platform ecosystem with ease and without compromising your data.
  • If you are researching a new, or are considering upgrading a, PLM platform safeguard yourself and ensure that your vendor offers an open standards architecture model that will allow you to choose the solution applications that you want to integrate into your PLM platform – without the added cost for yearly interface licensing between the likes of Adobe Creative Cloud, 3D solutions, and Pantone Live applications.
  • Guard against the encroachment of closed standards into areas that are open, such as the Internet itself.
  • Avoid PLM platforms that are limited to only several integrations that are in effect closed partner platforms.
  • Ask each of your solution vendors to confirm that they offer open standards that enable their point solutions to be interfaced via documented and published APIs and toolkits.
  • Ask your platform and applications providers to demonstrate that they offer an ‘Out of the Box’ (also called OOTB or ‘off the shelf’) set of published APIs and SDK toolkits that fully document the API features & functions to enable applications to work seamlessly with the minimum programming effort.
  • Only consider platform vendors that offer open APIs which define a standard language-agnostic interface to HTTP APIs, which allows both humans and computers to discover and understand the capabilities of the service without access to source code, documentation, or through network traffic inspection.
  • Look for open API definitions that in turn offer documentation generation tools to display the API, code generation tools to generate servers and clients in various programming languages, testing tools, and many other integration use-cases.

Benefits of using open APIs include for both the API publisher and the application developers of useful third party applications who want to use the publisher’s API to connect and share information on the platform. For the platform vendor, the benefits of an open API include the ability to expand a user base without the cost of niche point solution software developments (the likes of CAD/CAM, Colour systems, Materials Platforms, and 3D solutions). Further opportunities include the creation of new revenue streams via revenue sharing (apps marketplace) linked to licensing new applications on the platform ecosystem. whilst at the same time allowing the platform ecosystem owners to develop their own application modules and retaining their proprietary source code.

There are also further benefits for application developers such as the ability to use preferred development tools alongside an open API. Furthermore, they reduce time linked to dependencies between multiple development teams (Trend, Storyboards/Mood boards, Planning, PLM, 2D, 3D, Costing, Workflow engines etc.) and certain components that will help to reduce the time spent on fixing mistakes made when writing multiple interfaces.

Fashion and CPG (consumer products goods) platform vendors, application developers and users are now moving rapidly towards an interoperable ‘open’ platform ecosystem model that will be built on open standards. The future offers exciting opportunities for vendors, application developers and users alike that will enable completely new business models and processes that will drive real-time on-demand. At the same time all parties will be able to analyse data, drawing on new insights and intelligence whilst continuously tweaking both software and hardware to increase the efficiency levels of the extended value-chain. Retailers and brands are looking for technology vendors to help open their platforms, to help support product design & development, and manufacturing, into the value-chain and beyond to support customer use-cases via the Metaverse. Therefore, vendors must adapt if they are to stay relevant in today’s fast-moving markets. This suggests pressure towards openness and competitiveness.

Democratising technology is key to creating open platforms via the need to have broad access to shared platforms, data, and new related process opportunities, as well as commercial marketplaces that enhance the business without the need for extensive or expensive licensing.

It’s no longer a future vision; our next chapter on interoperable platforms has already started!

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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.