Product lifecycle management systems have been established within the apparel industry as essential solutions for adoption among major brands and retailers. Streamlining development processes through centralized access to and management of product lifecycle data has been the overriding goal. Although the phrase “one version of the truth” is overused, it’s highly descriptive and points to the primary benefit of PLM which is providing stakeholders with visibility into current product information through the development cycle. Now that PLM has been around for a period of time, what do these systems look like currently? How can they be used to enhance visibility along the supply chain? After reviewing capabilities offered by many of the leading technology providers, a number of key areas and trends stand out:
PLM is more than just a product data management system
At times PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) and PDM (Product Data Management) have been confused as synonymous terms. In fact PDM actually refers to the component of PLM that revolves around the creation and management of technical product data that drives the manufacture and quality characteristics of a product. PLM is typically a more complete offering that extends into other aspects of the development process and may encompass the ideation and planning phases and/or may link to manufacturing and business enterprise systems.
PLM comes in various flavors
While there is now quite a selection of vendors offering PLM to the soft goods market, vendor solutions differ in terms of their emphasis on specific aspects of the product lifecycle. Thus selecting a system for adoption involves reviewing capabilities in terms of both current and future company needs. The ability to import data from legacy PDM, PLM and related business systems may also be a factor for consideration when selecting a PLM solution. While most systems include a strong offering within the PDM area, some solutions extend into the planning phase providing greater focus on creative development, line planning and collection management. These solutions may integrate or link to trend information, illustration and storyboarding capabilities or provide access to data from previous seasons including style information and business intelligence. Users may also access or generate targets for sales, cost and resource allocation that support assortment planning and development decisions that are in synchronization with corporate financial goals.
Further along the process, solutions may also provide integration with CAD systems and allow linkage to or import of fashion or technical sketches, color information, textile designs, patterns, markers and texture mapped or 3D virtual samples. PLM systems also extend into pre-production, sourcing and/or manufacturing aspects of the chain. In this area systems often include the ability to request and track product and component samples in relation to specifications and the ability to generate a bill of materials (BOM). Systems may reach further into product costing by using standard rates that draw on data associated with component and material costs, packaging methods, manufacturing operations, shipping rates and sourcing scenarios. Within some systems users can send out requests for quotes (RFQ’s) or even issue PO’s. It may also be possible to link with systems that track work in process.
Materials, quality and compliance management are also incorporated into PLM
Within the PLM setting, users may draw on fabric and component libraries as a basis for development, minimizing the development cycle time as a result. They may also request and track lab dips and tests related to color fastness, product performance and compliance with product safety and environmental standards and laws. Over the last few years this area of software has been a focus for development among many PLM providers given recent additions to the CPSIA. In some cases, users can generate compliance documents and may access previously sourced and approved materials as a way of mitigating risk and reducing over-development. Users can also use PLM to track and compare vendor performance on the materials and manufacturing end to aid sourcing decisions.
PLM is designed to support visibility into product and process
PLM technologies have typically been developed to enable access to information among internal stakeholders in a way that allows assignment of rights including the ability to view and/or update data contained within the system. While individuals and teams within a company have ownership for specific aspects of a product or process, other individuals or groups may benefit from visibility into a given area. Dashboard-like interfaces allow users to glance at the status of projects within their circle of responsibility and call out items that require immediate attention or that have looming deadlines. Managers can quickly view the status of a product or group of products so that bottlenecks can be identified and development issues resolved with the ultimate goal of meeting product delivery dates. Since it’s possible to view a tremendous amount of information within the PLM setting it’s advisable to consider this in a strategic manner to ensure the most important information rises to the top and that users are not overwhelmed by data or inclined to fall into a state of micro-management.
Solution providers are looking to facilitate greater collaboration
Technology vendors and users of PLM are looking to expand the sharing of information by enabling access to the PLM system among external stakeholders including mills and manufacturing partners. From the retailer or brand perspective part of the goal is to provide a real-time vehicle for communicating product design and specifications including design updates and changes as well as product and material testing requirements and results. From the manufacturer or mill perspective the ability to access and submit information electronically can reduce miscommunications or working from out of date information – conditions that result in reworking, missed deadlines and increased expense and resource consumption. The ability to implement a collaborative development and manufacturing environment relates to software capabilities as well as the development of supply chain partnerships. Part of the strategy for implementation involves determining who needs access to what information.
These are just a few system capabilities and trends within the PLM software development area. My next blog post will dig a little deeper into related technologies for materials development including fabric coloration. For additional information check out some of the PLM articles within the technology reference section of the website.