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The IoT Transforming the Fashion Supply-Chain

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IOT Supply Chain header

Following on from our CEO’s earlier pieces on the Internet of Things, he continues his series of blogs here, with an instalment on the Fashion Supply-Chain. Mark explores what the IoT could mean for the Supply-Chain and, more importantly, the transformational change required in order to fulfil this potential. 

According to Gartner 6.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide this year, up 30 percent from 2015[1]. And Gartner forecasts that number will grow by more than three times, to nearly 21 billion by the year 2020[2].

Look around yourself at any time of day and you’ll find the majority of people around you using their mobile devices to share and collaborate, for both their personal and working lives. So, is it believable that we could see our mobile phones becoming extinct within the next ten years? Well, if the power of the IoT goes according to plan then our mobile devices will no longer be required for conversations to our always connected world; in the future communication & collaboration will be made via our surface devices and augmented reality views that will become our launch pads for collaboration.

Imagine tomorrow’s fully connected devices – like our mirrors, windscreens, glasses, sensors (the likes of Google glass and Hololens) – incorporating Artifical Intelligence to talk back to you. We already use virtual assistants like Siri or Cortana and this list is growing, with new technologies emerging to support both your personal and business lives all the time.

It all sounds exciting, and indeed it is. It was exactly the same for our industry when the first computers came into the fashion space back in the mid-1980s; we got excited about the endless possibilities that new technology could deliver and we focused too much on the computers rather than the business challenges that the power of these new computers could solve, not to mention the monetary saving this would deliver for businesses.

The Internet of Things, in the case of the fashion supply-chain, offers the chance to integrate the hundreds of processes and solutions that can be typically found in a retailer, brand, agent or manufacturer’s eco-system, and that will in the future collaborate together via the “Internet of connected Computers”, deployed at relatively low costs.

We’ve all seen the myriad of articles and news reports on the growth expectations for the IoT as it relates to other industries and, even in our own, the likes of the growing wearable apparel market, these are all interesting but are less tangible in terms of monetary benefits. For me, the real near-term ROI (Return On Investment) value for the IoT in fashion will come from connecting our supply-chain, where the hundreds of solution processes and devices will indeed offer real, tangible (hard-monetary benefits) impact on the overall efficiency and effectiveness of our end-to-end supply-chain.

Transformational Change

To realise the true ROI possibilities of the IoT, we will need every vendor to think and operate in an open-systems world, allowing the IoT to become a reality as part of the supply-chain connectivity.  There are indeed already many solutions that use the idea of open-systems. However, to set realistic expectations for our community, we are very much at the beginning of a new chapter of the IoT becoming ubiquitous. If we look at PDM’s transition to PLM it’s taken over 30 years; 30 years since a small team from Microdynamics (myself included) brought the first PDM (Product Data Management) system into our industry, which has since developed into today’s modern PLM (Product Lifecycle Management). So we will need to be patient when it comes to the notion of a fully connected supply-chain but, just like PDM, CPM and PLM before it, the IoT offers fanastic potential and, I believe, like everything today, will come that much faster.

Already in other industries we are starting to see, and will indeed benefit from, the open-system standards organisations that will be critical in identifying the requirements of connected computer solutions and “Things” and that will help to develop the approaches allowing the IoT to truly support the strategic objectives for the fashion industry.

Business Culture Change

A transformational change will be required when it comes to the operating procedures and culture of a business that is looking to develop a strategy for the IoT. A fresh examination of each of the critical processes and systems will be required, examining what goes in and what comes out of each, not only within the business headquarters but also across the extended supply-chain including: sourcing offices, mills, component suppliers, vendors, factories, labs and the many unknown supplier systems that together makes up the ever-growing connected landscape that will evolve for years to come.

What we might expect from the early supply-chain solution connections include: Social Trend & Voice of Customer analytics, Merchandise Planning (including finance, attributes & broad array of visuals), Knitting & Weaving solutions, Creative Design, 2D pattern CAD, 3D Virtual Design, Digital Printing (3D consumables and Digital ink jet printing), Technical Specifications (PDM), Sourcing & Costing, ERP Order Management (BOM), Material Inspection, Material Spreading, NC Cutting, Synthetic Costing, Material Handling, Production Scheduling and Monitoring. The list goes on with endless possibilities that, once mapped and analysed, will help to provide the cost justification for transformational IoT projects to get underway.

Smarter decision making

A future IoT connected supply-chain will greatly improve the effectiveness of decision-making within product design and development by learning from the data being gathered on a product’s lifecycle, as well as how they are actually used by the consumer. Using up to the minute data coming from the “likes and dislikes” of the customers, retailers and brands will help to modify designs during the manufacturing process – again using data coming from actual usage so that new products will be able to meet ever-changing demands. By analysing how a product is being used (via sensors located within a product), for example, a sporting brand might change the technical materials on running shoes to enhance performance, comfort and specific area wearability. So far in this post, I’ve only focused on connected supply-chain solutions, but just like the example I’ve given above we need to keep in mind that in the future, the IoT will include products that will be connected and will share their own data with our supply-chain solutions.

sphere made with mesh

Since computers first came into product design and development, at least within the RFA (Retail, Footwear & Apparel) sector that is (namely CAD, CAM, PDM, CPM, PLM), we have, until recently, done very little in terms of B.I. (Business Intelligence). Most modern PLM platforms do not yet include B.I. and data analytics as part of their solution offerings. This is an area that I believe will grow quickly in the coming years and in a few exceptional cases is already in use by PLM vendors who have the foresight of the enormous growth of data that will come from the IoT connected Supply-Chain, and that can only truly be analysed by computer systems (B.I.). This will enable insights that would otherwise never be found by humans and that will help to support smarter decision-making and, in some cases, will automate decisions based upon algorithms and advanced computer learning.


[1] http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3165317

[2] http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3165317

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.