From simple email communication to real-time video conferencing across global supply chains, online technology has revolutionised the way apparel companies do business. Now, with the growing popularity of online CAD solutions, Niki Tait examines the influence of the internet on the product design process.

While the internet has been an important component of supply chain communication for a number of years, it was not until Gerber Technology released its Web PDM solution that computer-aided design really came into the equation.

Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for the other major CAD companies to follow suit in the pursuit of quick, easy and exact communication for apparel designers, and now there are scores of products - each with different features and benefits - available for purchase.

The common thread, however, is security. Access to most of these systems is user-controlled to ensure that security and confidentiality are upheld at all times. Some participants are only able to see information that is relevant to them; for example, size charts and graphics but not the cost of a particular product. In addition, information can be displayed in local languages and data can be sent as Acrobat files for viewing or printing.

Quick and easy access
Getting the right documents to the right people at the right time is the key driver behind Lectra's latest solution, the Lectra Online Enterprise Exchange (LOEE).

The system, which runs on a subscription basis, enables companies to upload and store product files on a secure internet exchange platform. This allows global business partners to access these files quickly and securely - at any time and from any location. 

Digital colour management

LOEE is integrated with Lectra product development solutions, enabling a company to develop specifications and send them for almost instant access by the recipient. Security provided by Atos Origin enables the user to assign and restrict access to data, and to use a tracking device to record all document changes.

Communicating colour
In a visual process like clothing design and production, the need to communicate colour has never been easy. Across international supply chains, this difficulty is only magnified. Luckily, digital communication has gone some way towards eliminating the problem.

By using Datacolor's Colour Information Management System (CIMS), for example, and digitising and e-mailing the exact colours specified by a designer, suppliers can receive precise specifications within minutes. Using the same equipment, they can test lab samples to ensure they meet the specifications before submitting them.

Another feature of the Datacolor solution is genuine colour reproduction, which allows colour decisions to be made by viewing digital samples on a monitor instead of waiting for physical samples to arrive.

Digital colour management ensures colour consistency because of the objective numeric colour data involved, backed by accurate on-screen colour visualisation with recognition far more accurate than that of the human eye. Incorporated within CIMS is an objective means to evaluate and accredit suppliers to ensure digital consistency to the standard.

eWarna is another company providing an internet-based colour collaboration platform. The core technology of its Online Colour Management System allows a spectrophotometer to measure colours directly into a company's account on an internet server. That measurement can then be cut and pasted between folders shared with selected groups of internal or external colleagues, giving all parties access to the related colour quality control and recipe formulation tools.

Assyst Bullmer's web based product data management system

The company's other online colour collaboration system, LabWorks Pro, presents all necessary data and functionality on an internet server in user-managed folders. Each folder can be shared in real time with other LabWorks Pro users. These folders can also be searched over the internet, and can be linked to eWarna's Xmatch online application.

Online ordering
With much hype in recent years about made-to-measure and mass-customised clothing, many companies have developed online ordering systems. One internet-based software for custom-tailored apparel, Shirtsdotnet, provides an easy link between manufacturers and distributors by incorporating online ordering of personalised shirts. This enables more than a billion possible combinations with automatic pattern modification.

Using the site's Bivosoft MTO (made-to-order) function, ordering a tailor-made shirt begins with a choice of collars, cuffs, buttons, pockets, colours, fabrics and finishes. Customers can visualise all possible choices in 2D. Its Linosoft MTM (made-to-measure) function, on the other hand, enables the creation of a made-to-order pattern based on the answers to four simple questions: age, weight, length and collar size.

Shirtsdotnet, starting from a database with thousands of measurements of the human body, has worked out an algorithm that allows, in the company's own words, "a perfect pattern grading of every order". The e-commerce front office is online, connected with the e-business back office, while the numerical patterns, generated through Linosoft, are transmitted to factories for production.

Automatic lay planning
The internet does not only ease communication. It can also make hardware and software available free of charge to companies online, with the difference being that the customer buys a service or result. Assyst Bullmer, for example, offers an automatic online lay planning service, www.automarker.com, which is applicable to companies regardless of whether or not they use Assyst Bullmer's CAD systems.

When automatic lay planning first hit the market, the usual procedure was to purchase a software licence and run it on a company's own CAD system. However, this route was very expensive as it necessitated the purchase of the software and high specification hardware. In addition, maintenance, capacity and upgrade costs all needed to be taken into consideration. Only the largest companies could justify the cost and the results were often of variable quality. As a result, few sales were made.

Lectra Colour Management

Using the internet, Automarker's web service provides automatic lay planning at very high speed and efficiency without any of the heavy upfront costs.

It is available around the clock so, apart from general use, it is ideal for the workload peaks and troughs associated with fashion. The user simply creates the marker instructions and sends them to the site and, moments later, receives the finished marker. The marker can be created on one brand of CAD system and read on another.

Internet-based training
Online training, support, maintenance and parts ordering are now quite common via the internet, but Gerber Technology has taken this a stage further by providing a series of online events and specific product demonstrations.

These enable users to obtain the maximum benefits from their existing systems or make informed decisions regarding the purchase of possible upgrades, without the pressure of having a salesman present. Recent events have covered topics ranging from profit maximisation in the fabric cutting process to the benefits of integrating CAD and PDM.

By Niki Tait.