In today’s guest post, Michael Bales, writer and editor for Embodee, examines the current challenges around integrations for PLM systems – with particular reference to 3D tools. Embodee is a leader in 3D hosted rendering services.
During a recent conversation, a colleague with deep expertise in digital fashion technology described product lifecycle management systems as the “heartbeats of organizations” and the “centers of truth.” But he added a caveat: despite the essential, all-encompassing role that PLMs play, they face challenges as the apparel and footwear industry’s digital transformation expands.
Among the pressing challenges is the full integration of virtual 3D products and easy, widespread access to them for product line development and refinement. Typically, after designers working with 3D authoring tools complete their creations, they must manually create assets (usually in 2D) to accommodate the limitations of PLMs. This “going backward” suppresses the major benefits of 3D, including visual quality, interactivity (viewable from any angle), and flexibility for developing colorways, interactive assortments, variants, and more.
To understand why these 3D challenges and other problems exist requires a look back. Since American Motors pioneered PLMs in 1985, they have not only become integral to industries of all sorts but have also grown steadily in complexity and size. Today, the sheer breadth and volume of information stored and managed within the mostly closed systems is extraordinary. Think of them as data behemoths.
Because of their end-to-end function, PLMs must address the needs of many diverse players. This has affected their evolution. For example, with fashion, individual brands have heavily influenced the functionality of PLM via incremental, custom modifications. To produce the brands’ products, manufacturers require tool-specific data models from PLM, which adds to the complexity of providing a one-size-fits-all approach to data exchange.
Those and other factors mean that rewriting code to make the best use of new technology can be highly disruptive, especially considering PLMs’ heavy use across large organizations and the fact that employees who depend on them sometimes resist change. Interrupting workflows to improve the systems can be a difficult tradeoff. This also may explain why PLM interfaces generally weren’t – and in some cases still aren’t – known for their modern look or intuitive ease of use.
The overall result: PLMs aren’t easily revamped even when the advantages of innovation like 3D make a persuasive case for change. None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that PLMs and vendors supporting them don’t regularly seek improvement. They continue to innovate and search for ways to address these hurdles in the quest for greater efficiency, competitive advantage, and revenue.
For example, BeProduct, a cloud-based platform, has tackled the interface issue with a modern UX and tools that designers and other creative types, known for their reluctance to use PLMs, expect and are more likely to embrace.
Work to improve PLMs will no doubt influence their financial performance. A report in February forecast that the global PLM market serving the apparel industry would grow an average of six percent annually from 2020 through 2024. Market share in 2019 was pegged at nearly $425 million.
The report’s author, technology research firm Technavio, said the adoption of digital technologies and tools, including 3D, is needed to meet evolving consumer demands and will be a major driver of the growth. The forecast puts into sharper focus what’s potentially at stake, at least financially, if challenges aren’t overcome.
The pre-pandemic report didn’t address the surge in e-commerce triggered by COVID-19 that is expected to increase demand for digital solutions, including 3D, which makes virtual collaboration easier.
Reinforcing the need for 3D integration is the intensifying pressure for faster, cheaper, and sustainable products, a recent white paper concluded. “Technology to offset these pressures will push 3D technology to the forefront, making it a distinct winner as the technology of choice,” wrote technology solutions and services provider ITC Infotech. “The question around 3D is no longer about ‘if’ but about ‘when.’ ”
Why is full 3D integration with PLMs a daunting challenge? The answer is complex. In an article in March, Snapshot: 3D to PLM Integration, WhichPLM founder Mark Harrop broke down the complications and delineated two general approaches to the problem — basic and advanced. They hinge on what file types and resolutions are necessary in PLMs for various tasks.
When Harrop weighed in six months ago, he included a warning that’s still relevant today: beware of marketing spin around 3D solutions from PLMs and vendors alike that claim they have “active, bespoke integrations.”
“Over-eagerness is one of many symptoms when it comes to the quality deployment of new technologies, and often sparred on by marketers who don’t always understand the realities of these integrations,” Harrop wrote.
At the risk of oversimplifying the 3D integration situation, it boils down to the somewhat closed nature of PLMs and that they lack enough computing power, storage capacity, and network bandwidth for enough individual users to view and use 3D. But what if PLMs opened themselves to connections outside their systems?
For example, rather than embracing a closed system, PTC FlexPLM is approaching the problem this way: becoming a data hub connecting to outside content. A hub allows third parties to exchange data between one another, allowing them to tap into and feed the PLM with information.
But what if PLMs also allowed connecting to third-party cloud solutions where 3D product visualization and variant and collection curation were easy, and where all 3D authoring tools and digital material providers were supported?
Such solutions wouldn’t compete with PLMs but complement them, eliminating the constraints of closed systems. High-quality 3D renderings would be available from a web browser, on-demand, to anyone given access. Workflows would be built around 3D. Vendors would share APIs that allow easy integration with any PLM system. These advancements aren’t theoretical but far down the development path.