Effective and efficient apparel product development

5 June 2013 | Features & Interviews | Source: [TC]²

Fast product development can become a strategic differentiator for a company when carried out quickly, accurately and thoroughly communicated. And there are ways to achieve better results faster without adding more time or people, according to Anton Wilson and Kilara Le at [TC]².

Most apparel brands and retailers understand the value of shortening product development lead-times.

One of the most common obstacles to shortening lead-times is the ability to convert a design concept into an approved product with all of the materials, fit, construction and performance attributes developed, tested, and available when a purchase order is issued.

For many companies, the key to making this happen is effective and efficient communication between the internal product development team and with external partners.

Delaying final styling, pricing, colour and purchase volume decisions allows a company's merchandising team to develop better intelligence regarding fashions and customer preferences. Applied correctly, this intelligence should translate into more sales at full cost and fewer markdowns for unsold inventory.

However, without effective dissemination of information to team members, this type of strategy can easily compromise the planning and resources of sourcing and manufacturing partners. Done quickly, yet accurately and thoroughly communicated, fast product development can become a strategic differentiator for a company.

Given enough time and resources most brand and retail companies can design and develop good products through their production sources, but there are ways to achieve better results faster without adding more time or people.

In today's typical apparel model, a staff technical designer interprets a designer's expectations and the brand character into a sample request and tech pack.

The patternmaker and/or product merchandiser, often located thousands of miles away, will use this to develop an initial pattern, find appropriate trims and sundries and make a sample they think meets the designer's expectations.

As each sample iteration can take weeks to create, clear communication, standard tools and efficient processes can make tremendous differences in time and outcome in this common scenario.

Better methods of communication can be optimised not only for an individual company but also throughout a supply chain to get the desired results. These elements and their impact, like a well-designed product, must be cultivated, sampled, tested and revised in order to find the right techniques for each company and its various product development teams and partners.

There is no one "right answer" to make product development efficient; instead there are many elements and best practices that can be adopted as part of an effective strategy to achieve this goal.

Standardise communication
Communicating across time zones, cultural and language barriers with overseas partners is challenging under normal circumstances; it can even be a challenge when the same language is spoken across remote locations.

It is important to consider verbal, written and visual product development communication when defining processes and terminology to create a more effective strategy. Developing common methods and terms that all team members use from design to production to communicate comments, desired changes, and design goals is a way to mitigate possible confusion.

Other essential elements of an effective communication strategy are: clear and accurate images, standardised forms or fit models, standard layouts for reports, shared development calendars, and a defined development process that also provides a blueprint of roles and responsibilities for team members.

With a common set of communication terms and methods, in theory, everyone is on the same page from the beginning of product development no matter his or her native tongue. To further communicate efficiently, especially when many products with "moving details" are being developed at once, requires the use of tools that aid communication.

Use the right tools
Just as important as simplifying and standardising communication methodology is the ability to share, document and store communication for later usage.

At a rudimentary level, simple email with attachments (simple spreadsheets and/or images) can serve this purpose, but more advanced tools exist, such as PDM and PLM systems. These systems are designed to transmit and store digital images such as photos, scanned documents and product sketches.

Software tools such as digital sketching, pattern and grading, PLM and PDM enable faster creation and conveyance of product ideas.

The use of shared body sketches, or croquis, by both the designer and technical designer allows them to give drawings and sketches clarity and uniformity, and provides the patternmaker with some context of scale to deliver the intended non-technical fit characteristic. A common image library of construction details and techniques that all designers can utilise facilitates clearer, more consistent communication of their vision for a product.

To ensure best possible fit, developing standard methods of measure and points of measure is one of the most fundamental tools for standardising product communication. Many companies have initiated these tools but do not often keep them current, or worse, do not spend time ensuring that their vendors and factories are trained in their use and are following them consistently.

To ensure product samples are being evaluated in the same manner, many companies have also found that creating standard body forms representing their unique customer demographic helps to achieve a more consistent and repeatable accurate fit.

When factories making the products use the same standard body forms, any issues can be seen and corrected before submitting them to the technical designer, so final approval occurs faster, with fewer sample iterations. Production patterns can also be checked and controlled when the body forms are available in the factory.

Defining colour palettes using digital colour standards has been shown to significantly improve development times, as well as improve consistency of colour throughout the production cycle. The use of spectrophotometers to evaluate colour, along with common terms for relaying colour comments also helps to achieve accurate and consistent colour approvals in a timely manner.

Once samples have been finalised, factories can then utilise computerised marker making and cut planning software to move rapidly into production. These tools are also important to maintain the integrity of the product developed throughout the full run of production.

Developing outstanding development teams
The globalisation of apparel manufacturing and shortening of development time has lead to the evolution of the different roles within product development. In contrast to the "siloed" roles of the past, team members must now engage with one another and the supply chain on a daily basis, making effective communication paramount to success in the market.

Developing competitive products requires a mix of strategy, teamwork and utilisation of the right tools. The best practices to create this type of working environment are implemented and continually updated at many leading companies.

Methods to efficiently and effectively manage product development are also discovered through business analysis by internal and external subject experts. 

Providing team members with the ability to further their knowledgebase about their subject areas and that of the entire product development process also helps to build on individuals' skills and strengthen understanding about the importance of effective team communication.

[TC]² can help companies to improve improve communications, develop better tech packs or create world class product development teams and processes. For more information, click on the contact form.