Given their rapid evolution over recent years, it is difficult to predict where ERP and PLM will be a few years from now. Increased compatibility, cloud-based systems, social media mining, and on-demand manufacturing tools will undoubtedly have an increasingly important part to play.

Global giants such as Siemens, SAP and Oracle are likely to continue their dominance of the overall ERP and PLM markets, but there is a possibility they will lose increasing market share to specialist solution providers for the apparel industry.

And the specialisation of ERP and PLM software solutions for the apparel sector will undoubtedly continue, although past growth is likely to be tempered by the new and rapidly evolving economic challenges facing apparel companies requiring rapid adaptation of sourcing, distribution or reporting requirements.

Judy Gnaedig, director of strategic projects - fashion - at Lectra, notes that PLM systems are in continual evolution, with some features still being perfected, such as raw material compliance, vendor management and customer relationship management.

An important emerging feature, currently offered by just a few vendors, is the possibility of integration with pattern and 3D technology, Gnaedig said. This could be an important future development, particularly with the emerging possibility of connecting B2B or B2C experiences via mobile apps, such as 3D imaging with up-to-date sharing of data and visuals.

3D technology has many benefits, according to Gnaedig, who said that "in addition to facilitating communication between designers and pattern technologists; it means that sampling is easier and less expensive. 3D prototyping and fitting is generating significant savings for many companies".

Mark Burstein, US-based NGC's president of sales, marketing and research and development (R&D), sees overall development being driven by the thorny issue of compatibility.

"Integration of enterprise systems is one of the most important issues. There is a clear trend towards integrated systems in the retail and fashion worlds, especially with PLM, supply chain management and ERP systems," he said.

Cloud-based systems
The second important direction for ERP and PLM software solutions will undoubtedly be the cloud computing phenomenon.

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) is cost-effective and gives companies access to constantly updated software quickly and easily, especially when operating in a distributed sourcing and manufacturing environment.

While the American research firm Forrester predicts a five-fold increase in cloud computing in the next seven years, this system of enterprise management also has its downside that includes network speed and latency, as well as outages and data security that are beyond the company's control.

According to Jim Brown, president of independent Pennsylvania-based research firm Tech-Clarity, the benefits and disadvantages of cloud-based systems are still being weighed up by many companies. "I think it is fair to say that cloud PLM offers some very intriguing benefits and that companies are approaching it cautiously," he said.

Giuseppe Ghisoni of Italy's Porini agreed: "Most projects still contemplate an on-premise installation, but there is a strong tendency toward hosted or cloud-based solutions. In this aspect Microsoft is certainly the state-of-the-art," he said.

Mobile opportunities
Mobile technology offers further opportunities for Centric Software. For example, smart-phones have inspired the creation of mobile applications that work with the company's main, web-based software. These include a sample review application to conduct fit and review sessions; a collection book to enable marketing and sales; and a factory audit application to collect data from inspecting factories overseas.

An "extremely unique" feature of these applications is they can be used to collect data offline rather than most other applications that require an Internet connection to operate, said James Horne, vice president of marketing and business development, adding "that makes a lot of sense because factories are in remote locations."

Once the connection is re-established, the data can be uploaded to the web-based software. Keeping track of supply chain information such as whether factories comply with regulations could help a company avoid disasters like the Bangladesh factory collapse, he said.

Social media mining
The democratising characteristics of Web 2.0 systems and applications will likewise continue to play an important part in apparel manufacturing, and companies will need software that can cater to such interactive services.

Websites that allow users to comment on or rate collections and looks are increasingly important sources of product intelligence and trending information for apparel companies.

Over time, they have developed a direct and quantifiable dialogue between designers and their customers through the rise of crowd-sourced feedback. For example, a company can seek opinions from their clients as if they were a huge focus group through various social media before going ahead with producing a given line or collection.

There will no doubt be an associated proliferation of social media mining tools such as Dassault Système's Netvibes, that can monitor and collate social media commentary about a particular product or aspect of a product or even a sentiment, and feed it back into PLM systems as an increasingly important part of the design process.

The influence of social media will also continue to permeate product development and interconnected work spaces, such as social media interfaces for traditional production development that are likely to become a more common feature of PLM software and refined even further over time.

On-demand manufacturing
In the meantime, increasing sophistication in PLM and ERP systems integration could offer opportunities to tap even more niche markets for on-demand manufacturing, such as that undertaken by Chicago-based Threadless and even athletic footwear by manufacturers such as Reebok and Nike that can be custom-designed from a basic set of options and ordered online.

One of these niche sectors could even be additive manufacturing or apparel 3D printing (presented spectacularly in the haute couture collections of Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, but still dependant on the development of suitable materials for larger scale applications), possibly one of the future frontiers of apparel manufacturing.

A relatively unexplored software development has been the world of Open Source ERP. Solutions such as ERP5, developed by an apparel company as a way of bringing process control in-house and subsequently released as an open source platform by French software company Nexedi, can reduce implementation costs to almost nil for businesses with small PLM or ERP budgets, although a certain level of in-house expertise is necessary and costs are incurred through support fees.

Even more sophisticated platforms such as the enterprise open source model by US-based Aras software, with its specific apparel and footwear modules, remain relatively untested in the overall apparel sector that, to date, has taken a relatively risk-adverse approach to the adoption of new technology architecture, such as cloud computing.

Click on the links below to read other articles in this management briefing:
Software solutions: ERP systems offer apparel-specific options
Software solutions: PLM becomes more sophisticated and connected
Software solutions: ERP/PLM use grows in emerging markets