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The Internet of Things – Transforming Fashion

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Mark Harrop gives WhichPLM another exclusive blog, here. Our CEO explores the hot topic, the ‘Internet of Things’ in this piece, and in particular how it relates to the fashion industry. He explores what this inter-connectivity can mean for consumers, and how vendors can help. 

The Internet of Things is already 19 years old and is all around us every day – it’s time we take a closer look at how the IoT will support Fashion Design, Development & procurement…

The WhichPLM team has been following the ‘hype versus reality’ of the IoT for the last few years and more deeply over the last 18 months. There’s been increasing noise coming from many of the global technology giants – the likes of Cisco, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, and Samsung and a host of other leading technology businesses -who have been making predictions around the IoT. Although many of these predictions have fallen short of their target delivery times, we still believe that the Fashion industry has arrived at a point in time where smart sensors, software apps, PLM & E-PLM software, and a multitude of hardware systems are now ready to interconnect, helping to generate the automation and collection of smart data required to digitally transform our businesses. All in the not too distant future.

All industries around the globe, including Fashion, are waiting for the IoT to make real quantifiable impact that can be quickly translated into positive ROI (Return On Investment) for the business, and equally a positive return for consumers.

As previously stated, the IoT is already here and all around us; there are already billions of connected smart tags (RFID), tracking products and relaying data feedback that can typically track and record a wealth of information from these sensors, RFID tags, smart chips and that measures a multitude of things. These ‘things’ can include acceleration, rotation, orientation, pressure, angular velocity, altitude, temperature, gyroscopes, barometers, high precision temperature sensors, people counters, material & component stock, products SKUs and so on.

As individuals we are already using apps within the IoT; we use health apps for training workouts or to listen and measure the health of our bodies. These apps can wirelessly send information on health data to our phones/devices that can warn us of potential issues to our heath. We use apps that monitor the security of our homes, sending potential intruder warnings to our mobile devices or allowing us to turn on the lights or the heating remotely.

Today, in Fashion, the IoT is already in use within many new businesses that are developing smart sensors and devices used in the growing market of Fashion wearables. These sensors and smart chips are making it almost effortless to track just about anything a business needs to know from their consumers, or wearers.

These are things to which connectivity has been added as a way of improving the end user experience or, for industries like fashion, to facilitate the maintenance contract between customer and supplier of both software and hardware. Although this connectivity will soon bridge the physical and digital worlds in a variety of different markets, this was not necessarily its original purpose.

Coupled with the global migration to IPv6 (the revision of the internet protocol that opened up a gigantic range of IP address spaces) technological advancements in the size and scope of embedded systems and sensors create the ability for a large array of fashion ‘things’ to be connected to one another and to monitor or interpret systems, but it does not pre-suppose anything beyond that point.

So by now I hope that you would agree when I say the IoT has already arrived and it’s all around us. The challenge for the fashion industry is to start thinking of ‘use cases’ that will help to transform the way that we design and bring products to market.

In many ways ‘newness’ (like the IoT) reminds me when computers first became available to the fashion and manufacturing industry in the mid 1980s – a time when trying to convince people to move away from paper-based processes onto digital ones better communicate management data (Design, Bill of Materials, Bill of Labour & Costing Systems) was like pushing a huge snowball up a hill. As computers started to mature into graphical drawing applications, I would often suggest to designers that they might want to consider using drawing applications instead of paper & pencil, only to be told, “come back in five years Star Trek!”

PDM (Product Data Management) went through a similar resistance in the late ‘90s, as did PLM at the turn of the millennium. But people do eventually see the light. And I, for one, believe that the IoT is our next industrial revolution that is taking place right now. Yes, it will take time to really see and touch it’s value but it is here and it is as important a change as the commercialisation of the Internet was in the ‘90s.

“The beauty of the Internet of Things is the Internet”

WhichPLM recently had the opportunity to interview Kevin Ashton, the inventor of the IoT. A British technology pioneer and co-founder of what was the Auto-ID Centre at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Ashton stated that “there are some 3 billion more RFID tags in the world than there are smartphones.”

He coined the term the “Internet of Things” in 1997 whilst managing the supply chain at Procter & Gamble. It was then that he decided to start exploring the use of radio-frequency identification, widely known as RFID, to better track every aspect of manufacturing. Ashton made the simple point that, “that the beauty of the IoT is the Internet”. [The full interview will be available in WhichPLM’s 6th Edition Report, set to be published in early September.] 

IoT is all around us every minute of every day. Enterprises like Apple & Samsung are just two of the companies that are leading the charge in embracing the technology enabling the IoT, with smartphones and wearables that we all use and wear every day of the week. The challenge now is to extend this ubiquitous use into our everyday businesses via the Internet, local networks, smart sensors, M2M (machines to machines), smart apps, business intelligence, analytics and algorithms that can all talk to one another and make sense of Big Data.

Next steps for the Internet of Things in Fashion

We expect that there will be more than 1,900 [based on WhichPLM’s years of research and a proven scientific formula for estimations] fashion businesses that already have, or are in the process of implementing, a modern PLM solution that uses the internet to support design, development and procurement of fashion products for sale to their consumers.

These are the companies, in my opinion, that will continue to take the lead and push their PLM vendors to adopt the Internet of Things and, in the course of doing so, will derive many ROI benefits not only for the companies concerned but also for their consumers. Consumers will equally benefit by greater choice of products, faster time to market, mass customisations, product personalisation, new collection notifications, price matching straight to their phones or special deliveries to a just-in-time collection point. There are a myriad of benefits that will come from “joining the dots” of the IoT.

So, what might some of these ‘use cases’ look like?

Let’s take a look at two elements of a product’s lifecycle: the first, logically, being design, product development and manufacturing.

WhichPLM believes that the leading PLM vendors are uniquely positioned to disrupt and transform the fashion supply-chain paradigm, by connecting trend data shared with merchandise planning solutions that can use smart analytics and algorithms to predict the next design trends and colours, which in turn will share and connect information on: financial planning; assortment planning by country & region; 2D creative design options; materials management & testing; colour management (including digital testing & approval of samples with there locations &  details available on RFID tags); pattern measurement & development; 3D virtual prototypes; size ratios; planning & marker making; material batching (colour shading/lengths/widths that can again be tagged and shared with material planners); material inspection & quality audits; spreading machines providing feedback on styles and material parameters to planners in readiness for cutting; N.C. cutting machines with automatic parameter settings taken from material tags, tracking feedback on status of products and even the health of the cutting machines; machining (sewing) and make-up, progressing styles through the production process; pressing & finishing; packaging and palletisation with RFID tags to support SKU mix and audits; mobile product quality audits with supporting data feeds;  B.I. (business intelligence) helping to make sense of Big Data and analytics supporting smarter decision making; supply-chain collaboration and visibility; product tracking & logistics (supported by the use of RFID tags); warehousing and picking efficiency linked to product location smart tags.

Each of these sample opportunities can be further extended with the leading PLM vendors using the IoT, to support improved collaboration with third party E-PLM solution vendors, both in retail and across the extended supply-chain.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the retail opportunities for the IoT.

These include the use of RFID, beacons, smart chip solutions to track inventory from the warehouse to delivery to the store. Also within brick and mortar stores customers are using their smartphones or wearable devices to quickly scan QR codes to call up product information, virtual product images, supporting product videos showing uses, size & colour availability, social media reviews and compare pricing options or to order from their website for special delivery.

On entry to the store smart sensors, beacons and CRM solutions will pick up your identity (linked to loyalty memberships based upon opted-in smart phone customers) and can then welcome you back and make suggestions of new and related products based on your previous buying patterns, likes and dislikes, fast fashion versus price and will be able to offer you personalised deals and price matching!

Retailers are starting to install smart virtual mirrors that allow customers to try on different products and will share data of what you tried on and eventually purchased and, perhaps equally as important, what you chose not to purchase. Perhaps you didn’t like the fit, colour, or material? This type of data can be shared together with the marketers, designers, merchants and buyers to help improve their hit rates. Retailers could also message the customer to offer special discounts and cross sell and up-sell related products as part of a set.

From a marketing and communication perspective, IoT-connected materials and signage can share content with stores in real-time from the internal marketing teams, including original intent and content for the product (how to use, how to measure, purpose, inside view of the technical make-up etc.) and even customised for specific stores around the world.

Finally, let’s talk about the use of beacons that can provide a great deal of information on store demographics and visitor numbers at any given time of the day, using heat maps linked to product areas visited, products viewed and selected, frequency of store visits by person (loyalty opted-in), purchasing histories and personal preferences. All of this data can help sales associates deliver that special “one-to-one” service to their most valuable customers. This type of information can also be used to better manage staffing resources during peak times when customer numbers start to peak.

We are already experiencing the use of RFID based customer engagement displays that can be triggered from your mobile or touch screens to share product information and availability, and, just like our food retailers, the introduction of self checkout counters!

Improved customer experience via magic mirror solutions enable customers to avoid the changing room queues and allows them to try on a wide variety of products with the support of pick and mix suggestions, and uses social media to share choices with friends.

Both the design and retailing process that I’ve mentioned represent just a very small sample of the opportunities for the IoT, that in my opinion will – just like CAD, CAM, PDM, CPM, PLM, 3D before – help to digitally transform the fashion industry over the coming years.

The above use cases are just the start of what’s to come in terms of the IoT efficiency opportunities those retailers and their extended manufacturing supply-chain partners will benefit from – there is a huge value opportunity in the coming years!

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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.