The author offers a refresher on the benefits of product lifecycle management (PLM) in today's fast-paced fashion environment, and asserts that industry demands render manual development and processes unfeasible.

Fast fashion typifies the apparel, footwear and accessory (AFA) industry's need for speed. In just the past two years, the average number of styles introduced by apparel manufacturers has doubled. And that trend appears to be continuing, as the industry moves toward more rapid design, multiple seasons, shorter market windows and smaller quantities to lure consumers back into stores more frequently, and hedge risk by tying up smaller inventory investments in smaller collections.

Time is of the essence. The problem is that at some point, the speed needed to generate so many collections and styles becomes physically impossible if relying on traditional manual development processes and spreadsheets.

In that environment, global teams can't access product information easily or quickly or securely, calendars can't be shared or synchronized, and management lacks sufficient visibility to spot problems and address them in time to assure on-time deliveries.

Additional manpower doesn't solve these problems. The costs are prohibitive, and the problem really isn't people. The problem is that antiquated tools can't address today's fast-fashion requirements. This is where product lifecycle management (PLM) comes in.

What Is Product Lifecycle Management?

Product data management (PDM) solutions were widely adopted by the industry in the 1990s and early 2000s to enable sharing of designs and technical specifications. A similar adoption pattern is now underway with PLM. According to AMR Research, more than 90 percent of AFA companies are planning to buy PLM in the next three years.

In "PLM: Achieving Value Chain Orchestration," AMR defines PLM as "a set of enabling functionality to support an organization's NPDL [new product development and launch] process." These functionalities are set forth as PDM and specification management, line planning, collaborative product design, partner collaboration, development process management, direct materials source and calendar management.

How PLM Helps

PLM is essential to speeding collections from concept to store. The right PLM solution can enable apparel manufacturers to cut time to market by at least half.

PLM delivers tremendous efficiency boosts. It automates traditionally manual tasks and streamlines the process, ensuring that the entire team has access to the most recent consistent designs, product specifications and supporting documentation, and eliminates the redundant manual efforts that increase the likelihood of errors that lead to delays, increased costs and poor quality.

PLM enables collaboration. When all internal and external stakeholders work from the same information and the same calendar in a centralized, easy-to-access solution, and communicate in real time on a single platform that is designed to bring them together, they can collaborate, share information and ideas and ultimately accomplish more in less time.

When an AFA company has decided to adopt PLM, however, it is important to evaluate and select the right type of PLM solution, one that has been designed specifically to meet the unique needs of AFA companies.


Choosing the Right PLM Solution

How then does an AFA company find the right PLM solution? While many vendors offer "apparel-ized" versions of PLM that are really the old engineering-based systems in disguise, certain PLM solutions have been designed specifically for the AFA industry. Following are some specific things to look for in a PLM solution for the industry.

  • Line Planning

A PLM solution must provide a collaborative environment in which both business and design sides can work together during the vital early stages of collection planning. PLM for AFA should provide visibility into cost, margins, sales targets and other critical factors to enable quick review and comparison of plans, and expedite decision making.

  • Product Specification

PLM designed for AFA must enable the company to build product specifications on a secure central platform so everyone involved is working off the same up-to-date documents. Instant availability of the most recent product information via PLM across global internal and external teams enables a company to avoid costly delays in the development cycle.

  • Sourcing

Choosing the right suppliers can accelerate time to market. Consequently, the right PLM solution for apparel companies should enable the sourcing team to get involved early in the planning process, and move forward with product design as an integrated process. The right PLM solution will streamline supplier cost comparisons and evaluations, aid in compliance management, and identify supply chain issues that put the company at risk of missing market windows - enabling an AFA company to orchestrate this complex process across a globally extended supply chain.

  • Calendar Management

Keeping track of timelines and milestones and providing visibility into the schedule across all parties can greatly speed the entire concept to store timeline, making calendar management critical for PLM in the fashion industry. Stakeholders need easy access to deadlines just as management needs immediate access to project status, and views into performance across teams, seasons, collections or products to ensure on-time delivery of both samples and products. In addition, the PLM system must drive proactive calendar management with timely alerts and notifications.

  • Ease of Use and Rapid Implementation

Solutions focused squarely on the needs of AFA companies are characterized by both ease of use and ease and speed of implementation. Ease of use assures that the variety of users who need access to the system are able and willing to readily use it. This includes everyone involved, regardless of location, from partners to designers, and from product managers to executives. Ease of use assures that the benefits of PLM are realized without long, expensive learning curves and training cycles.

Equally as important is the speed with which the system can be implemented.

The industry is rife with true stories of PLM implementations that have dragged into their second and third years without payoff. Yet the reality is that quick implementations are also possible, and real. A system should implement in one season and deliver benefits in the next.

Additionally, the right PLM solution for the fashion industry will support the aforementioned four key product development processes.

About the Author:

Ray Hein is executive vice president of market strategy and business development at Centric Software. He is widely recognized as an industry thought leader in collaborative PLM solutions.