The Promise of PLM and the Challenges of Implementation

PLM—product lifecycle management— has been a buzzword among tech-savvy apparel makers over the last decade.

The supply chain management software has its roots in the aerospace industry, and, in recent years, the apparel industry has had a growing cohort of PLM providers to choose from, including many who designed their solutions specifically for apparel makers’ needs.

Despite PLM’s promise of greater efficiency, cost savings, reduced waste and faster turn times—as well as plenty of industry anecdotes to back it up—PLM has yet to be adopted by the industry across the board.

At a recent technology conference in Los Angeles, Leslie Hand, a research director of IDC Retail Insights, a market-research company for information technology used by retailers, fielded a question about PLM’s impact on the apparel industry.

“What has product lifecycle management done for the fashion industry? Why should we invest now?” an unidentified man asked Hand at Tech Conference West 2011, organized by Apparel magazine and held onMarch 29 at the Fashion Institute of Design& Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles.

For 12 years, product lifecycle management technology was promised to revolutionize the fashion industry, yet—according to the audience member—only half of big fashion companies have adopted it.

Hand replied that PLM has been instrumental in helping fashion companies thrive during harsh economic times. PLM makes it easier to adopt to speed-to-market production techniques during a time when the public has been demanding quick lead times from retailers. The program has al lowed businesses to innovate and make themselves unique i n a mu c h more efficient way than those without PLM.

“The need to differentiate products, service and brands is greater now than ever, coupled with a much higher financial bar for return on equity, assets, risk reduction and efficiency,” Hand said. Her research found brands using PLM found a 10 percent to 80 percent reduction in cycle time, a 2 percent to 25 percent decrease in product costs and 20 percent to 40 percent reduction in product-quality issues. Yet many executives attending the conference conceded there were barriers to industry-wide adaption.

One of the biggest hurdles is that businesses can be slow to adapt to a new technology, said Jim Crawford, executive director of Global Retail Executive Council. “The challenge of tech concepts like PLM is that they change the way people do their job,” he said. “It changes it enough to where people are afraid.”

The change could turn into a headache for a company controller who has comfortably run a business through programs such as Excel for years. A move to PLM would mean abandoning a routine that had worked well for most of the executive’s career.

But old business routines are being tossed aside in a rapidly changing world, Crawford said. PLM will continue to help mid-size and large companies modernize and become better business competitors, he said. During Tech Conference West, a few companies, including Miami Lakes, Fla.–based New Generation Computing Inc., announced the latest updates to their PLM programs.

NGC’s PLM program will centralize communications between offices spread around the globe, according to Mark Burstein, president of sales, marketing and R&D for NGC. With its raw-material management, if a shipment of cotton is late to a Chinese factory, businesses connected to that company on PLM will be notified immediately of the delayed shipment. The PLM program also will update their production calendars. “I want the system to tell me what my problems are,” Burstein said.

He noted that his PLM program had capabilities in line planning, global sourcing and direct-to-source management. The program can simplify spreadsheets, require vendors to acknowledge changes in production calendars and manage postal communication such as overnight packages, among other functions. —Andrew Asch