PLM: Seeking a Simple Solution for a Complex Supply Chain
Ever since PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) software was introduced to the apparel industry, the solution has been helping companies do everything from line planning to streamlining production by giving everyone involved in development access to the same real-time information.
As familiarity with PLM’s capabilities has grown, so has the complexity of the supply chain as companies source materials and production around the world.
To kick off a new focus on technology, California Apparel News Executive Editor Alison A. Nieder recently caught up with executives from several technology providers to determine what brands, manufacturers and retailers look for in a PLM solution and how those needs change depending on size and market position. When companies come to you looking for a PLM solution, what are they looking for? Are companies’ PLM needs different depending on their size and their market? Do those needs change over time?
Director, Global Product Marketing
We’ve had strong interest in product testing and social compliance—but product testing is becoming more important now with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s (CBP) Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) becoming the Single Window in December. What’s happening now is CBP is streamlining all trade information through ACE, creating a single, electronic view of all import and export requirements. Previously, traders needed to submit the same information to multiple agencies multiple times. U.S. importers (and exporters) electronically file using ACE, with the filing typically done by your customs broker or your 3PL.
Single Window improves operations for both the importer and the various Partner Government Agencies (PGA) by providing a single portal for the importer to electronically submit all information to comply with CBP and other government regulations. The information would then be assessed electronically by the relevant government departments and agencies (47 in all), resulting in border-related decisions transmitted electronically back to the trader.
As importers, this means you need to turn in certificates of compliance (CoC) stating the product has been tested and is compliant with certain regulations upon entry into the United States. This is not the current requirement under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which states the importer of record needs to provide the CoC on request, typically when screened at the port. [With Single Window], the certificate of compliance or conformity is now going to be required on every shipment.
There’s a new burden on making sure that products are tested and meet all of the regulations based on the country it’s sold into. Oregon, Washington State, Maine, California and Illinois have placed additional levels of regulation on some goods, which means you also need to turn in whatever is going to be necessary for the state level. And if you are selling that same product to multiple countries, this gets really complex.
Social compliance often goes hand-in-hand with that also. You don’t need to turn in documentation for social compliance in order to [clear customs], but now we have tools for restricted-party screening. You want to look at all of the suppliers you’re dealing with to make sure your supply chain is clean. It’s similar to the conflict minerals ruling, [which prohibits companies from] buying from a black-listed supplier.
If you look at product testing, if you import 100 T-shirts or 100,000 T-shirts, you still need to have that test done. The demand from the regulatory side is the same regardless of the size of the shipment or the size of the organization. Just because Nike is bringing in a billion shipments a year doesn’t mean Modell’s Sporting Goods has to do anything less. They’ve got the same requirements. So from a regulatory perspective, there is no de minimis. Modell’s has to make the same investment that Nike is. That’s a huge burden on small and medium enterprises. The best way to streamline the processes is to automate using a technology platform such as Amber Road’s. The solution allows for tracking of each PO (purchase order) and the testing status, ensuring the goods will have a certificate of compliance for entry.
President of Sales, Marketing and R&D
When companies are thinking about a PLM solution, what they really seek is visibility of the product lifecycle from concept through delivery. They are also looking for faster speed to market, more efficient design processes and tighter collaboration with their supply-chain partners. Often, the decision to invest in PLM is a result of a company’s success and rapid growth; companies can’t keep pace with the growing number of lines, their SKUs are proliferating, and they need to establish more consistency in product fit and quality. These are all signs that a company is ready for PLM.
Companies look for a PLM solution that is designed for the fashion industry. They want a product that is especially designed for their industry and software companies that have in-depth understanding and experience in fashion and apparel.
The beauty of a modular approach to PLM is that companies can get the functionality they need now and expand later.
Typically, the core functionalities are implemented in the first phase, followed by supporting functionalities in later phases. Core functionality includes product specifications and approval tracking, costing, sample management, PO delivery and WIP (work in process) tracking, logistics, and calendar management. These are the basic building blocks for the concept-to-delivery model.
Later phases of a PLM implementation often include line planning, vendor onboarding and compliance, product and material testing, and production quality management. Once the system has been live for a period of time, it’s time to add business intelligence (BI) tools to start tracking metrics and setting goals for continued improvement.
Director of Business Development
Lectra North America
Successful companies look for PLM systems for one main reason: They have a strategic goal in mind and their current systems and processes are preventing them from reaching that goal, or at the very least slowing them down. I know this is a very general statement, and it is general on purpose because strategic goals can vary quite a bit from company to company depending on size, market, maturity as well as many other business realities. The important thing is that their investment in PLM be linked to reaching a well-defined strategic goal and that the technology be tied to a thorough revamping of business processes.
When a company is small, often they are looking for a way to get their tech packs out in a uniform way. They are interested in costing, approvals and other basic items. These guys are many times just trying to keep their heads above water as they experience growth and look to manage increasingly complex business models. Larger companies can have additional needs that center around risk management and improving quality. This may include things like assessing environmental impact, documenting the social-responsibility records of their vendors and trade partners, more ownership and accuracy around fit, and better communication tools such as integrated 3-D for globally dispersed teams.
Dr. Andreas Seidl
Chief Executive Officer
Human Solutions Group
I find that no matter what size a company is, there are two highly important issues with regard to a PLM system. Firstly, companies want to design one seamless development process that becomes transparent and manageable via PLM and includes teams, sites and partners worldwide. The second issue is the integration of the key software tools along this process. It is these two factors that have the most impact on quality, time and cost saving—and that is the pressure most companies are experiencing at the moment. They need to get their collections to the store faster, and every cent saved on the way will be beneficial to the company’s results. A PLM system that truly matches a company’s ways of working can help to achieve this. That is why PLM GoLive offers overall system integration, a full reference process, and availability in the form of desktop, Web or cloud software. Any market segment has its special demands in terms of process design. In my opinion, a true fashion PLM should fulfill any of these demands, like the management of multiple products and their great number of product variants, or individual process flexibility for apparel for men, women and children. However, a company and its processes naturally change, as do its PLM needs. So maximum flexibility and the ability to upgrade to new technologies in the market would be a must for me—and that rules out any system that requires a lot of legacy programming. Our philosophy is fast adaptation and as much flexibility as possible.
Founder and President
Productive Solutions LLC
As a provider of system evaluation and implementation services, we see a growing number of small- to medium-sized businesses taking their first steps into PLM. Fashion companies often look to us for help in defining the scope of their PLM needs, finding their best system/vendor fit, crafting an implementation plan and getting the biggest bang for their PLM buck.
PLM system capabilities continue to expand to include more processes both upstream and downstream from the core product-development focus. Beyond product data management, bills of materials and tech-pack capabilities, many of today’s fashion executives and entrepreneurs want to leverage expanded PLM functions for materials management, line planning, workflow management, sourcing and compliance.
Generally speaking, the needs of small- and mid-sized fashion companies are quite similar, but they evolve over time. Early in their PLM initiatives, many companies want to leverage traditional PLM features to tackle basic best practices. For example, their initial goal may be to transition all of their design and preproduction data into a PLM system so that designs, product specifications, costing information and fabric/trim libraries are centralized and captured in digital format instead of on paper, in spreadsheets and disparate computer programs. They also may want to drive more product-development communications through the PLM solution, reducing reliance on emails, faxes and phone calls.
After achieving these early wins, which can result in significant business improvements, some fashion businesses consider PLM’s expanded capabilities. For instance, they may want to reduce physical sample rounds by utilizing 3-D sampling technology, which is integrated into some PLM programs. They may decide to leverage PLM line-planning capabilities, drawing on historical sales data and social-media indicators to help them make well-informed decisions on the next season’s collections. Some companies are even using PLM to generate 3-D showrooms so that retail buyers can view their collections digitally anytime, anywhere.
The scope of a fashion company’s operations can drive differences in PLM system requirements. For example, while most companies need to share product information and track both internal and external processes, a small company with in-house product-development teams and a local contractor network may not have the same collaboration and systems integration needs as a large, global enterprise.
With finite human and capital resources, small- and medium-sized apparel businesses often benefit from implementing an out-of-the-box fashion PLM solution that can provide immediate solutions to their most pressing needs, such as gaining visibility and control over preproduction processes and accelerating time to market. The key is to invest in a system with the flexibility to grow with their business. Their solutions provider should be ready, willing and able to add capabilities and extend the PLM solution to address the demands of growth and supply-chain complexity.
Companies that come to us interested in PLM are attracted to several benefits. The top ones are:
Cloud-based product data. Having all product-related information in one central hub (in the cloud) makes collaborating with teams across multiple geographies seamless.
Automated tasks. PLM automates things such as file storage, time stamping, PDF generation and report generation. PLM incentivizes the user by taking the product information they’re going to create anyway but then aggregates that info and quickly creates reports with it. Therefore, a line plan can be created in seconds using the images they uploaded for their tech packs, consolidating many steps.
Bird’s-eye view. PLM offers a bird’s-eye view of your product-development process. To find where a button is being used across multiple styles is as simple as clicking a button. Without PLM, it would require someone manually going through each style to find this information. With company’s SKU counts in the hundreds, this can be a very tiresome task. Filtering systems help you narrow down seasons, divisions and product categories to help you find the information you need fast.
Recycling product data. Reusing design components helps save both time and money, avoiding additional development fees. Also, many users create new styles from previous, like styles to save time and maximize their productivity, which all can be done with a few clicks of a button.
The interesting thing is a fashion company’s development process from one company to the next is very similar, which is why a turn-key PLM such as Backbone works for companies across multiple product categories and markets. Not much varies depending on size and market; we have clients with two users and others with 10 who use the same platform and tools. Their process may differ slightly, but it’s mostly semantics.
As a company gets larger, they may need more integration. Usually, they will need a PLM that talks to their ERP (electronic resource planning), their inventory manager, or creates merchandising worksheets and production purchase orders.
Director of Business Development
Brands approach us for different reasons and at different times.
Most every company starts out using Excel and email to track everything from design to development, production, all the way to sales samples. FAN PLM caters to lifestyle, footwear and apparel brands, so we see brands come to us for a few different reasons:
Explosive growth. A company is growing so quickly that they can’t manage the data, so they hire more people, but things still fall through the cracks. This kind of bandage brings down morale and can financially kill a brand.
Amount of data. Brands with constantly evolving product lines and new seasons throughout the year amount to a massive volume of information that must be tracked. Tracking products through their lifecycles with resources such as Excel, Smartsheets and email are very quickly outgrown. When companies can bring their factories and sourcing agents into specific parts of the system, without security issues, it reduces time, mistakes and eliminates hidden costs.
Reducing head count. Adding head count to analyze, track and make sense of the numbers becomes a financial burden. C-levels start to recognize that they need a robust system that can analyze and make sense of the data. A proper PLM system such as FAN’s can provide insight that is otherwise unachievable.
They don’t know what they don’t know. Oftentimes companies are also looking to introduce best practices. Implementing a PLM system that has been built based on years of experience in their specific industry offers new practices that can streamline the entire lifecycle process. A good PLM system should be able to grow in a complementary fashion to the brand’s growth without breaking the bank.
Global communications. Companies are constantly challenged to communicate with factories. Sending tech packs, transferring design files or emailing Excel files are all riddled with challenges and room for error. Using a cloud-based system allows everyone access to real-time info and provides for that single version of the truth.
Vice President and General Manager, Enterprise SW Solutions
Gerber Technology’s YuniquePLM is Web-based product lifecycle management software that helps the fashion and apparel industries communicate effectively, accelerate workflows and eliminate errors. YuniquePLM was developed by industry professionals with practical experience in design, product development, supply-chain solutions and manufacturing and connects the creative teams to the supply chain to get the right products to market, on time and at the right cost.
YuniquePLM is a truly collaborative platform that promotes communication all along the supply chain, aiding businesses in standardizing their processes for development and product information. Companies seek out PLM systems and partnerships in order to better communicate and collaborate—first internally and then with their supply-chain partners.
Initial implementation of a PLM system is typically centered on consolidation of product data and information and creating a solid tech pack that can be used with vendors. YuniquePLM integrates with all of the tools used in the industry, such as Adobe, textile design software, and pattern-making and marker-making CAD software, including Gerber Technology’s solutions such as AccuMark 3D visualization systems.
The need for access to information and collaboration along the development and production processes cuts across businesses of all sizes, and YuniquePLM is effective for all types and sizes of companies. In fact, we recently introduced YuniquePLM In The Cloud as a way to offer flexible and scalable PLM software without the need for an IT infrastructure, so it is a platform users of all sizes (and particularly smaller companies) will be able to embrace.
In the case of larger businesses, however, the benefits of PLM can be more significant because companies can collaborate across their own multiple brands and product lines. As an example, this access allows for the material aggregation and visibility across product lines, brands and divisions, which drives increased cost-saving opportunities. These reductions in time-to-market and opportunities for cost savings can also be applicable through the entire supply chain.
True collaboration and communication comes with continued use and integration of PLM, particularly in the areas of cost management and bills of materials. Over time, businesses and their supply partners can work to achieve global strategic goals together, including collaboration on full sourcing and line and range planning.
Chief Executive Officer
Companies look to ApparelMagic’s PLM features when they need to track every important requirement during the product’s development and selling lifespan. From the very beginning stages, when designs are being reviewed, fabrications tested, specs revised, and when important decisions are made regarding sourcing and raw material choices, high-visibility PLM is not a luxury, it’s a mission-critical necessity.
Smaller companies who outsource production still need to record whether and when a garment has met compliance requirements (such as CPSIA, Prop 65, etc.). That’s why Mulberribush owner David Feinberg credits ApparelMagic for “the ability to trim costs, by better understanding the entire product and sales environment—labor, materials, production cycles, customer buying patterns.”
And larger companies, who typically control broader aspects of the development and supply chain, rely on ApparelMagic to track every important sign-off date and document reference in the testing and compliance process. According to Seven Licensing’s President and Chief Financial Officer Peter Akaragian, “Whether it’s a redesign to enhance the product’s appeal or a change in available fabric and sourcing, we use ApparelMagic’s PLM to determine our options and respond effectively.”
ApparelMagic’s unique “event history” tracking and document linking means that whether data is stored directly in our system or referenced by document number, the managers have instant access to requests, responses and the current status of certifications. They can even call up instant images of the certificates themselves.
But PLM requirements go far beyond formal certifications. ApparelMagic also presents a unified view of product history, including lab dips, customer approvals, details on the origin and consumption of raw materials, management of design sign-offs, technical drawings and photo images of garments, trims and accessories.
Once the product has survived the development process, ApparelMagic provides in-depth analysis of its sales performance and relative contribution to the bottom line. Ranking and analytical reports provide decision support to justify expanding the product, revising or retiring it, based on clear visibility of its performance over time. Badgley Mischka President Christine Bell Currence states, “ApparelMagic’s PLM system has given us a significant boost in efficiency in many different departments. We use the system throughout the company to share data with designers, customer-service agents, production and inventory-control departments, even our warehouse fulfillment partners.”
Today’s most advanced and competitive players require a PLM that is light years ahead of what was expected even five years ago. Web access to far-flung offices and personnel is demanded. Drag and drop image management is essential. Onboard email integration for transmitting transactions, tech packs and approval forms is expected. By meeting these demands, ApparelMagic strives to give the modern apparel company, whether startup or industry veteran, the best PLM tools for success.