In their latest exclusive for WhichPLM, Visual Next discusses the changing face of fashion, and how PLM mobility is becoming a must for entire supply chains. This piece addresses common concerns around mobile PLM, and integrated future of PLM and other systems. Visual Next is a Montreal-based software development company specializing in Apparel specific Enterprise Management Software.
The fashion industry is complying with shorter cycles that affect design, supply chains, and warehousing. This renders manufacturers and retailers in a race to keep up with the changing market requirements. At the heart of this pursuit is Product Lifecycle Management that drives fashion technology innovation. In order to accelerate production phases, successfully run an omnichannel business, and improve margins, mobile solutions need to be a part of PLM processes.
PLM software does not solely reside in an office space anymore. What we’re seeing is the leveraging of a mobile, device agnostic PLM system to create entirely new workflows that depend on the mobility of business processes. The mobile connectivity of PLM software allows for an agile workforce that uploads information and communicates with designers, customers and suppliers on the go, and in real-time.
A model walking down a fashion runway in Italy inspires an executive to capture a photo of a particular look and uploads it in the PLM database. The designer in the U.S. receives an alert, accesses the photo, and then digitally renders it to create a sketch, followed by a sample and a techpack. The techpack is accessible in real time by the factory in China where a manufacturing team can start production as soon as samples are approved. All of these steps can happen in record time.
To profit from such accelerated and geographically distant collaboration, the voice of the market is issuing a loud call for a mobile-optimized PLM. In a survey on PLM satisfaction, Tech Clarity concludes that limited access to unstationary PLM is one of the leading factors of dissatisfaction and that mobile access to PLM software is in increasing demand.
The effect on a fashion, apparel, accessories, or footwear business is powerful. Efficiency is increased when information is readily provided and captured to and from the PLM database. With unfettered access to the complete production cycle in the PLM system, executives and key stakeholders are able to take faster yet more prudent actions when problems, such as machine breakdowns or missing fabric, inevitably present themselves. Though physically absent from the office, a device-agnostic PLM allows decision-makers to monitor complex production lines on the go, resulting in minimal delays and maximized profits.
Current mobile integrations into PLM are QR codes and RFID tags that play a tangible role in manufacturing, warehousing, and retail. Today, employees use their mobile devices to scan QR codes assigned to materials and products to swiftly catalogue them. QR scanning, rather than manual data input that is prone to error, expedites tedious indexing of stock. RFID tags, on the other hand, make product management more efficient during a product’s lifecycle, as it tracks product flow and materials, and provides valuable information at the retail store level.
B2B communication between designers, distributors, and retailers is now also taking place more effectively. With the help of a PLM connected Business Intelligence solution, retail stores can transmit up-to-the-minute insights on which garments are selling most and least. This data, in turn, shapes design decisions for the next fashion cycle and avoids the production of garments that have historically not been successful.
Mobile PLM Concerns
Some of the gravest concerns raised about roaming PLM software involve security. A PLM database carries sensitive information such as designs and bills of materials that must be completely protected. Not surprisingly, a PLM database travelling on a mobile device carries a degree of risk as data can be compromised. According to statistics by the Ponemon Institute, cyber-crime costs the U.S. retail industry an average of $8.6 million every year. In an attempt to strike a balance between convenience and security, businesses provide company smartphones to the most active of PLM users, while implementing authentication measures, and enabled tracking.
Such measures will be in accordance with a company’s culture — a consideration that should be studied carefully to determine how a mobile-responsive PLM platform should be used. For small to mid-sized fashion companies, PLM might seem an unrealistic proposition. However, smaller scale businesses, arguably, have the most to gain from PLM implementation, especially a mobile-cooperative PLM system that would render their operations faster and leaner. Mobile access to PLM will allow them to adapt to the ever-growing industry and be prepared to respond just as quickly as their competitors do.
Moreover, in order for a PLM software to be most effective, companies should combine their PLM database with their ERP, SCM, BI, WMS and ECOM systems. Integrating PLM with other key software solutions allows for a mobile, omnichannel, end-to-end experience that can be transformed into a portable executive office.
Access to PLM mobile should not only be considered for company executives. Last year, 43% of American employees reported that they have worked remotely for at least some time, an increase from 39% in 2012. As remote employment rises, so will the need for accommodating it with device-agnostic software systems like PLM. However, a portable PLM platform is of little use to an employee if the user interface is not adapted for mobile use. While the screen will inevitably be smaller, the user interface must remain intuitive, and easy to navigate. Additionally, because PLM will be used on the go, it is important for tasks carried out to be paused then completed later. The option to interrupt and resume work is one of the most important properties of an unstationary PLM system, allowing the user to take full advantage of their surroundings as they change while on the move.
Although mobile integrations for PLM remain in their infancy, the advantages of a system that promotes interoperability and integration capability hold the key to a successful business. Technology investments are already heavily concentrated in cloud-based services, mobility, robust hardware, as well as Artificial Intelligence and virtualization.
Emerging IoT technologies and Big Data will play a formidable part in database management systems by increasing sustainability. When a product is tracked through warehousing and distribution, connected devices make it easier to monitor it from factory to customer, enabling the company to reduce travel distance and time waste.
The IoT and Big Data also provide invaluable opportunities through PLM, by bridging all the different areas of a product’s lifecycle, connecting a company’s staff with its operations, and connecting a company with its customers more profoundly than ever before. The incredible influx of data through user reviews, geolocation, and social media connectivity would guide design and production at the PLM level to more accurately keep up with demand and create more profitable products.
As IoT technology and Big Data analysis mature, so will machine learning capabilities for PLM. Because of information collected in both static and mobile contexts, machine learning’s biggest role will be decision management. For example, if a company is in the process of designing a clothing line for a certain retailer, a PLM system that uses machine learning can help the designer to choose fabrics and colours favoured by this particular vendor.
To round up the “smart” capabilities of a PLM software system, we will also see the use of mobile-specific hardware such as GPS to provide location-based services, cameras that sync up with visual recognition technologies and sensors (e.g. colour or material detection) within the mobile device hardware, identifying and recommending fabrics during design.
Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies will also find their way to PLM. When integrated to PLM, AR should allow designers to communicate visually, rather than in written form. A design team can use AR to test if this season’s garment can still look good if last year’s popular pockets are added to it. Or perhaps, designers are able to better visually represent how two straps, not three, make for better sandal closures. Using smartphones slotted into a VR headset, Virtual Reality Mock-Ups would hasten the concept to production process. Using VR technology, 3D prototypes can be used to finalize designs rather than sending physical prototypes to and fro, sometimes across continents. Both AR and VR allow for the beta testing of new designs through focus groups, rendering companies more confident of the profitability of their products.
PLM mobility is quickly changing the way the fashion industry works. A product’s lifecycle is no longer in the hands of a selected few. Rather, full inter-team collaboration, no matter the location, is now possible and is a strong driver of innovation. The potential to produce products of better quality, with increasing reliability – all the while keeping down costs and drastically reducing time-to-market – is becoming an achievable reality. Companies that take full advantage of existing PLM capabilities while remaining open to newer mobile technology will have a richer experience for executives and employees alike.