This is a product category that suffers from misnomer. The following will chronicle the evolution of this misunderstood and ill-defined concept. It is necessary to understand the evolution of these concepts, and to frame them in the context of current and future use.
In the early days of durable goods manufacture, a Bill of Material provided the list of components required to assemble a given product. The BOM as it was called may have included purchased as well as manufactured parts, and listed drawing number and revision level for all manufactured parts as well as catalog number for purchased parts. The purchased parts were defined by the company who made the items and little flexibility was possible unless a custom design was in order, which then carried its own part number and specifications. Prior to the use of computers in manufacturing, inventory of parts and purchased components was often done with manual card systems and purchasing was done routinely following a frequent review of cards to determine quantities on hand.
The introduction of computers allowed a more organized process to be employed. Lists were more easily maintained, but purchasing and manufacturing work orders were still subject to error. The advent of relational database design provided a means in which these disparate operations could be viewed in the form of printed reports, and later as real-time information systems replaced batch systems, on-screen information could be seen at fixed points in time. Such greater control allowed for higher efficiency, reduction of errors and over-production and introduced the modern era of manufacturing control. Eventually this was extended to the shop floor where feedback from machine and assembly operations was fed into systems that tracked on-hand quantities and provided automated triggers for purchasing of needed components.
Automotive and aerospace companies adopted and refined the technology. MRP, materials requirement planning, was the name given to these early systems. From mid-1970 through the 1990’s MRP was continually refined and began to encompass more than just materials. ERP, or enterprise requirements planning picked up where MRP had left off, tying together the front end systems with manufacturing, purchasing, finance, distribution and eventually logistics. With each level of refinement, efficiency improved and better use was made of capital, both human and financial.
During much of this time, as MRP and ERP systems were being refined, the textile and apparel industry adopted bits and pieces where they could be made to function, but still many aspects of the soft goods business were controlled with archaic methods and manual systems interspersed with islands of computer technology. An integrated approach was late in coming and as recently as the late1980’s, computer use was limited to batch processing of the day’s changes in business during overnight data processing runs and provided printed reports on executive desks the next day. MRP II resulted from networking capability and tied together the materials planning with routing and other internal functions.
The introduction of the personal computer, at first a slow adoption due to territorial disputes with data processing executives, began to have an impact as people began to see how information in real time could be used to effectively improve daily operations. By 1993 personal computers using Windows operating systems allowed even those with no programming knowledge to effectively use computers. The use of Visicalc and later Lotus 123 led to creation of flat file databases which soon drove the development of relational database tools. These programs could really be useful.
Style, size and color are characteristics of apparel and other soft goods that were not incorporated into the systems used for durable goods. Flat file as well as relational databases were developed to accommodate style, size and color and the soft goods industry, and in a relatively short time were computerized, often with results that were inconsistent, as users did not have the ability to share data and every spreadsheet and database was an island. As long as the business was small, the personal computer did its job well. With growth of the business, the data systems also needed to grow. Networking was needed, and was met by companies such as Novell Networks and later the Microsoft networking capability.
Although outsourcing had been done on a modest scale since the mid-1980’s, the introduction of NAFTA in 1995 began a trend that had grown until today the outsourcing of production to other countries is the norm, not the exception. As outsourcing grew in volume, it also grew in scope. From simple cut and sew to incorporation of sample making and eventually, design of new products, more work was being done in distant parts of the world and in time zones that may be twelve hours out of synch with the time where decision makers reside.
Thus a perfect storm driven by many factors resulted in products such as PDM, product data management and later, PLM, product life cycle management. PDM is an apt description of a system in which data of all types is aggregated and made available to all parties with a need to know. The data can be shared over private networks, and the Internet. Security of the data is important to avoid compromise of trade secrets. Communication across time zones poses no problem, and workers in other parts of the world all work from the same data, eliminating errors and version faults. PLM is not as easily defined. What is the product life cycle and where does it begin, and end? There are hundreds of software companies who label their product PLM, but do not start from a common point, and none are about tracking the product to the end of its life.
The life cycle of a product may have components that predate the inception of the new product. One feature that is common to PDM and PLM systems is a library of component parts, which, when properly indexed, may be used repeatedly in subsequent designs and new styles. Thus, a new product development can incorporate previously used components with new styles, fabrics, print patterns or finishes to create a new style. It is here where the life cycle begins. Many PLM vendors have intricate processes in which patterns, sketches, specifications and other relevant data are entered into style sheets which comprise the new design. As the design, fit, and approval stages are traversed, there is much communication between the designer, pattern maker, sample sewer and cost accounting as well as engineering personnel. The secure PLM environment allows these exchanges and also provides for voice as well as text communication. Photos and live video also can be included in the PLM database for a given style. A record is thus maintained, and all necessary reviews and approvals can be set in order to follow a prescribed work flow and ensure that approved designs get to production on time, and that no short-cuts are made by those in the process. Purchasing or sourcing personnel are then allowed to place orders or create work orders if the design is to be executed internally. To this point, the process seems straightforward. Manufacturing can utilize specifications stored with the style file to check patterns against design intent, set up measurements at work stations and audit quality of finished goods before shipping to the warehouse or customer.
Some software suppliers consider this to be the end of the product cycle. However, there can be much more utilization of the data. PLM will contain the purchase or work order and may be used to receive goods into the distribution center and with extensions to enterprise systems, route the shipments in the most effective manner, provide a receiving facility linked to accounts payable and inventory systems and when sewn products are fitted with RFID chips, be used in order picking, packing, shipping and logistics.
The ultimate end of the product life cycle occurs when the consumer has used the product for the last time and is prepared to dispose of it. Between that time and the hand-off to logistics other opportunities exist. If we assume for a minute that RFID is incorporated into the sewn product early in its assembly, tracking through the manufacturing processes can be incorporated, thus allowing accurate traveler records which may have tax implications, and can also be used for put-away and order picking in the distribution center. These may seem like mundane tasks that are unneeded, but if done without integration of systems, can result in higher occurrence of errors. Tracking through the receipt at the retailer will also provide information that could indicate pilferage or other losses. At try-on time, if the item is apparel, knowing the number of times tried on before purchase might provide valuable insight, and at point of sale, the item being sold is valuable information to allow replenishment of inventory if possible, and for use in calculating best price as inventory levels of non-replenishable items falls. At the time of disposal, knowing how long the item was in use would be of interest. With a still-active RFID chip containing information on fiber content, the final information would be to a recycler, who would disassemble or shred the item for possible post-consumer use. Knowing which products follow which paths to recycling or landfill would allow creation of better consumer education and point to the value of recycling. The product thus completes its life cycle and becomes another data point in conservation of the planet’s resources. The value of this extended life cycle monitoring is subject to debate, but the possibility exists that when monetized will become a driver for adoption of the entire life cycle. PLM will provide the repository as well as the analytical base for true product life cycle.