Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software has undergone a profound change over recent years, dominated by three catchwords: integration, cloud computing and social design.

Integration is perhaps the most significant, short-term trend in both PLM and ERP development for the clothing and textile sector.

Integration on a systems level has become a pressing requirement of PLM software, which must be able to communicate with both the company's core ERP system and also with external suppliers.

PLM, as the name suggests, allows companies to manage all stages of a product's creation from design to distribution, including sourcing and other important product development considerations, under a single system.

While ERP solutions are concerned with managing the business of manufacturing, good PLM solutions are concerned with getting the right product made. Historically, these two systems have often been quite separate but with the increase in global sourcing and, in some cases, the globalisation of product development, these two systems must now be able to communicate with each other fluently and quickly.

"When systems remain standalone it is not possible to bring sufficient optimisation to the overall supply chain processes," said Judy Gnaedig, director of strategic projects - fashion - at Lectra. "Managing interface connections is also getting easier with software open architectures (SOA)."

Gnaendig added that the benefits of having access to product development tools through PLM are still not sufficiently taken into consideration by most companies when they are selecting a PLM solution. "This inevitably means that there will be re-keying of data at some point in the design to production process, thus limiting the ability to speed up development cycles and control or reduce costs."

The importance of integration
The global economic downturn has - if anything - highlighted the importance of integration if it can deliver better time-to-market and production that can maximise margins.

Jim Brown, president of independent Pennsylvania-based research firm Tech-Clarity, said PLM was vital to a company's ability to stay competitive in this scenario.

"PLM for these industries needs to help distributed supply chains stay in sync and work toward a common goal. Fashion companies need to take advantage of PLM technology to create an integrated, transparent view of their pipelines and products," he said.

The world's first computer-aided manufacturing software products, the predecessors to PLM, were released back in the 1960s. The PLM software market today is dominated by a handful of multinational providers that have been trailblazers in the industry, including the German multinational Siemens (Siemens PLM software) and global software giants SAP and Oracle.

They have been joined by numerous competitors who offer innovative, scalable solutions with apparel's specific requirements in mind.

In the apparel, footwear and accessories sector, US-based Centric Software offers the Centric Eight all-in-one web-based PLM solution that tracks products from development and merchandise planning, technical design, supply chain, cost and quality.

"They [the companies] come to us with a great thing they want to see in the product; we build it into the product," said James Horne, the company's vice president of marketing and business development. For example, since most people in these markets use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, Centric has built an Excel-compatible user interface into its programmes.

"You can be assured when you deliver a product to market, whether it will be profitable or not profitable," he said.

Horne compared the clothing supply chain to a race: "The gun goes off; you launch into production. And in order to run a great race, you have to prepare and make sure you've got the right product, the right supply chain all lined up so that execution then becomes easy. What you don't want is a recall or a glitch to basically say, whoa, I didn't earn anything on that product. You don't want those kinds of margin surprises."

Meanwhile, Giuseppe Ghisoni of Italy's Porini, said flexibility and an all-in-one solution were particularly important considerations in an industry where data standards were difficult to manage and integration between systems could be very challenging.

"It is important to always be able to adapt and model your proposal customer by customer, for instance many fashion companies need PLM integrated with your ERP. Others don't," he said.

Ghisoni added that the global downturn has limited IT investment: "The recession has played an important role; some are putting off decisions about software investments until next year. It's easier to justify something like a machine that cuts or sews but it's harder to justify something like software when budgets are tight," he said.

This means all-in-one packages are even more attractive, and all major software providers are now offering software suites that include both ERP and PLM systems as well as customer relationship management and supply chain management systems.

The second important shift in PLM software has been the trend towards software-as-a-service (SaaS), delivered via the internet through a cloud.

Just a few years ago, the concept of 'leasing' an information infrastructure was given scarce weight. Today, however, all major providers, from SAP and Oracle to France's Dassault Systèmes and NGC are providing this option.

Social product development and design
This trend is likely to continue, along with a shift towards social product development and design.

At the recent annual CIMdata Conference Forum in Germany, 'State of PLM: Today's Market and Leading Trends', CIMdata president Peter Bilello (the company is a US-based independent PLM consulting organisation) said: "The new social-savvy workforce and the manner in which they expect to communicate and collaborate is changing the way companies execute projects. In many ways, product development as we have known it is dying."

Although his comments were perhaps more specifically directed at designers in industries such as the automotive and aerospace sectors, the same could be said for the fashion sector.

This trend has two important and interconnected components. The first is the possibility for global product development teams to interact on the one platform. Spreadsheets and email have in many cases been replaced by PLM systems that allow a more interactive, collaborative process to take place.

Massachusetts-based PLM supplier PTC, for example, which can boast clients such as Lotto Sport, Adidas Group and Brooks Brothers, provides a 'SocialLink' module to its PLM Windchill software that allows team members to exchange ideas when a product is still in development as if they were chatting on Facebook. The module also has a mobile application.

A second important component is the increasing possibility of feeding client relationship management data such as shop floor feedback or even intelligence mined from social media commentary through a tool like Dassault Système's Netvibes, that can monitor and collate comments on a particular product or sentiment, back into the design process.

Click on the links below to read other articles in this management briefing:
Software solutions: ERP systems offer apparel-specific options
Software solutions: ERP/PLM use grows in emerging markets
Software solutions: New tools develop in diverse directions