The latest developments in Information Technology for the apparel industry came under the spotlight at last month's IMB Forum in Germany. The event was attended by Niki Tait, who reports here on the coming of age of PLM, the benefits of 3-D sampling, and the ERP giants now focusing on small and medium sized fashion firms.

The IMB Forum - sub-titled 'Information Technology for the Textile Processing and Apparel Industry' - provides a platform for IT suppliers to present their latest products, and also bridges the gap between the larger but more mainstream IMB sewn products machinery shows which take place every three years.

At the last IMB show there was a lot of hype about the newly launched PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) software being offered by many companies. The systems are now developing the backbone and structure to support this hype.

Essentially, PLM is an IT tool to help an apparel company manage its collection, from the point of conception to the point of sale. It starts with planning what the collection should contain and when it is due in store, and controls and monitors all stages in between.

PLM is an extension of PDM, or Product Development Management, which is essentially a warehouse of product information including specification and measurement charts, fabric and trim details, that helps monitor and communicate a new style.

And it acts as an extended link between CAD and ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning, which controls the manufacturing schedule within a company's own factories and at subcontractors around the world.

All garments have complex pre-production paths, including pattern making, sampling, grading, sourcing fabrics and trims, lab dips, manufacturing and quality specifications, measurement charts - and all these items need to be controlled, managed and expedited.

Decision making
PLM includes merchandise planning, taking as its starting point the definition of what a collection should contain - what sort of garments, in what sizes, in what colours and at what price, margins and profitability, using store concept and forecasting information.

From there decisions can be made about what samples are required at what price point and in what timescale.

This leads to the identification of which potential suppliers could technically make them, who has the capacity, and who should sample and cost them. This involves supplier collaboration, and should enable sampling to become much more targeted to requirements.

A successful PLM solution creates a value chain where information and transactions are exchanged seamlessly between all members.

It should integrate design, planning, development, manufacturing, marketing and retail activities into a unified process flow, and support parallel integration across product development and sourcing.

3-D sampling
In the 21st Century, when the use of the internet is commonplace and virtual reality an accepted part of everyday life, the time and cost of manually sampling garments is both ridiculous and outdated.

The fashion market requires rapid response and more styles, yet five or six physical samples per style often have to cross continents before a final manufacturing agreement is made.

Today's technology enables virtual three-dimensional samples to be accessed around the world via the internet. People in different continents can work on the same style simultaneously, to develop the design, the patterns, check fit and drape, and agree colours.

To achieve this, a lot of technological work has gone into producing correct size virtual mannequins, as well as visualisation of different fabric drapes from corduroy and denim to knitwear, Lycra and lace.

It is also possible to 'sew together' two-dimensional pattern pieces in the correct manner and the correct order to produce the 3-D garments.

Current technology enables virtual garments to be 'dressed' on virtual house-sized mannequins to check the fit all round the garment. These dressed mannequins can even be virtually walked up and down catwalks to see how the garments look and drape.

Different colourways can be tested instantaneously, as can other fabrics and forms of decoration - all before a pattern is printed out, let alone any cloth being cut.

If samples and fit developed in India can be approved in New York the same day, for example, think of the time saved. The potential for reducing sampling numbers, time and cost is staggering.

And when combined with virtual colour management it means the whole range, fabrics, colourways, fit and patterns could potentially be approved before any real garment is ever made.

The power of 3-D simulation and virtual prototypes could not only save time and cut product development costs by reducing the number of physical prototypes that are required, but also help co-operation between everyone involved in the development of a collection.

Off-the-shelf ERP
When it comes to finding an appropriate ERP 'off-the-shelf' IT package, different industries have different needs, processes, and customers.

The textile and apparel business is no exception, with a global supply chain that ranges from fibre to finished garment through to retail, and nearly all garments operating several colour and size variations.

Despite the emergence of many IT companies that specialise in the apparel industry, the big generic software companies also want to be involved.

Microsoft has decided to address the needs of big business by developing industry specific ERP systems built around a central Microsoft Dynamics AX core, in effect going head-to-head with SAP in terms of competition.

Textile and apparel industry IT specialist Fox Porini was selected as the AX textile and apparel industry partner, and the first release of the software is now available.

Microsoft Dynamics NAV is the generic solution for small and medium sized businesses and covers financial administration, fixed assets, CRM, supply chain, logistics, service management, warehouse management and production in one integrated environment.

A fashion industry specific solution of Microsoft Dynamics NAV has been developed by Microsoft and Netherlands-based Pebblestone Fashion, which caters for apparel, footwear, sporting goods or accessories companies, whether production, wholesale or retail.

SAP All-in-One
The SAP Apparel and Footwear Solution for Consumer Products, which has been available for some time, provides big businesses with a single integrated platform, based on SAP ERP.

It supports companies operating in the apparel, footwear, sports and fashion industries, from managing supply chain, logistics, operation, and customer and consumer services to financial controlling and corporate services.

However the new SAP Business All-in-One solutions are designed specifically for medium-sized companies.

Also based on the SAP ERP application, the Business All-in-One solutions for the textile and clothing industry - called B1 Fashion - have been developed with UK-based Option Systems Ltd.

Option Systems is well known for its StyleMan software, a web-based ERP system that covers the core business functions of clothing and footwear companies such as sales, sourcing, manufacturing, stock, and warehouse management.

StyleMan can also manage retail outlets and concessions, and is scalable to support from five to more than 500 users.

A separate company, B1 Solutions, will be established for the SAP based B1 Fashion.

Another company, SAC Software Industrie Consult GmbH, will also be developing a SAP Business All-in-One textile and apparel specific product, called SICSone, though this is likely to be limited to German speaking Europe.

The IMB Forum is organised by Koelnmesse in cooperation with the German Garment and Leather Technology Association (VDMA). The next IMB Forum will be part of the IMB 2009 exhibition which is taking place from 21-24 April 2009.

Niki Tait C. Text FCI FCFI heads Apparel Solutions which provides independent assistance and training to the apparel industry in the areas of manufacturing methods, industrial engineering, information technology and quick response.