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PLM: What’s Next?

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In his role as Global Sourcing and Technical Division VP at United Colors of Benetton, Andrea Piras relies on his experience of process reengineering, change management, and technology to maintain Benetton’s status as a leader in sourcing and supply chain processes.In this exclusive feature, originally running in our Annual Review 2014, Andrea draws on that same experience to project into the future, and look at what he believes is coming next for PLM.

It is easy to think of PLM as a finished product. But as everybody within the apparel industry recognises, the changing nature of our business means that no technology can really afford to remain static.

Benetton has worked with PLM for many years, and in my role within the company I am exposed to the latest developments in extended PLM solutions. These are things that I believe will soon make their way into more and more product development processes, until they eventually become considered part of PLM – or what comes after PLM.

By far the most active of these new technologies – and the one I find the most promising – is the area of virtual simulation. This covers four different types of technology that I expect will sooner or later transform the NPD (new product development) process across the apparel, footwear, accessories, textile and retail industries.

As I mentioned, virtual simulation currently covers four main types of technology:

  • 3D CAD (design tools that operate in three dimensions).
  • Fabric behaviour simulation (including drape, weight and other characteristics).
  • Colour and texture simulation (incorporating standard colour and material libraries).
  • Rendering and dynamic simulations, using avatars.

It is interesting to note that all of these technologies are already in use within other industries, and are now being adapted to best serve the needs of fashion. Avatars and dynamic rendering solutions are migrating from the movie and entertainment industry, while 3D CAD and colour / texture simulations previous served the aerospace and automotive sectors. Draping and textile behaviour simulation technologies, on the other hand, originate in academic fields, since accurate simulation of a range of materials requires significant computational power. This type of technology is, though, already in use within the aerospace industry.

As you may have guessed from reading this list, all of these technologies are focused around creating, manipulating, and utilising three dimensional duplicates of products that either do not exist yet – for the purposes of prototyping and sampling – or that do exist, but that it may be simpler, quicker and cheaper to work with in digital form than physical.

For all of those purposes, we need to be able to rely on virtual 3D garments, footwear, and accessories that so closely mimic the appearance and behaviour of their physical equivalent that they can be used across various stages of the product lifecycle. This might include early product development, sales, marketing, e-commerce, supply chain processes, customer interaction… the number of possibilities is unbelievable, and I believe we are soon going to see a new revolution in the fashion field.

In order to reach this stage, these 3D product models will have to also maintain extremely close links with the brass tacks of product development data: technical specifications, 2D patterns, accessories, textures and colours.

This view of the industry-wide transition I see from 2D to virtual 3D working is one that also highlights other opportunities for these new technologies. At the moment, for example, there are specific “moments” in the NPD workflow which serve the change the “status” of a collection or product, such as:

  • The product brief becoming ready.
  • The product brief being frozen.
  • Fabric and materials reviews being completed.
  • Colour palette review being completed.
  • Design review being completed.
  • Prototype review being completed.

I am sure you would be able to list many more that you have memorised. Today, though, each of these steps (at least up until the prototype review stage) involves only a limited number of people / stakeholders, since visualising a final garment from just the product brief is an acquired skill.

Imagine how this might change with effective simulations becoming possible at every “moment” in the NPD workflow. Sales, marketing, and even consumers could  potentially be brought on board to make “decisions” or influence future product direction prior to a physical sample even existing. Of course it will be important to make sure that these new, dynamic interactions with 3D product simulations are effective and positive in terms of product value, but the potential is extremely exciting.

As readers of WhichPLM will no doubt know, PLM – the technical evolution of PDM software – has emerged as perhaps the most effective tool for managing product data and NPD workflows. The right PLM solution can support existing company internal processes and product data management, whilst also laying the groundwork for new and emerging technologies.

Just like our example, where 3D simulated models could potentially bring many new players in the NPD process, truly modern PLM solutions are already leveraging web technologies to place a strong focus on collaboration. Workflow and data management can today be shared across a wide range of different roles – from internal company departments to suppliers at the first and second level – all using a common platform.

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In the very near future, I see the kind of retailers and brands that use dynamic 3D virtual simulation beginning to build on that existing collaboration. Perhaps more importantly, I see a near-term demand for PLM vendors to support this kind of enhanced collaboration in their solutions.

In essence, I believe that next-generation PLM solutions will need to support a selection of new roles that go beyond managing pure product data and take on the task of truly managing the asset value of a product.

The entire product development process could then be completely re-tooled according to the new opportunities this approach would present, and centred around the concept of managing information that maximises asset value. Under this new model, each product could have potentially multiple “times to market” according to the decisions and influences of stakeholders during the early phases of development, rather than just the commercial introduction date we see today.

For me, the future of PLM lives in its evolution from Product Lifecycle Management to Product Asset Management.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.