Software can help tackle some of the challenges facing apparel supply chains by providing full end-to-end visibility across all channels, using data to drive better decision-making, and boosting collaboration with suppliers.

Kurt Cavano, founder and chief strategy officer, GT Nexus:
To master omnichannel retailing, retailers need to fulfil demand across all channels. So how do retailers get the back-end capability to match the front-end customer facing technology? Through a networked supply chain that provides full end-to-end visibility, removing barriers between channels. Without an agile, networked supply chain, retailers have no way of guaranteeing timely fulfilment the way the customer wants.

In 2016, analyst groups are recommending that retailers strongly revisit their investment in back end technology, which is critical to optimising the supply chain and creating real financial value. Retailers like Columbia Sportswear excel in supply chain operations due to their investment in technology infrastructure. These capabilities allow Columbia to obtain visibility into second-tier as well as their first-tier suppliers. With full collaboration amongst all partners, they're able to procure the best allocations of SKUs and meet minimum order quantities without sacrificing inventory or service levels.

Paul Magel, president, Applications and Technology Outsourcing, CGS:
To meet global supply chain demands there are notable technologies that enable business growth, cost reduction, supply chain agility, product innovation, speed and enterprise visibility – key value drivers for apparel organisations.

Across the board, solutions with integrated analytics and a reporting engine are highly sought after because they enable businesses to move from 'reactive' environments to 'proactive' environments. We are seeing a growing trend and requirement for predictive analytics (leverages statistics to help understand what might happen) and prescriptive analytics (helps business managers translate their forecasts and business information into actionable, feasible plans).

Some solutions that are key to moving to a proactive environment include:

  • Fully integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) – ensuring complete end-to-end visibility and a common user experience across in-house and global supply chain operations.
  • Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) – integrates design, development, sampling, sourcing, quality, vendor relationships and more.
  • Manufacturing solutions such as Materials Resource Planning (MRP) and Shop Floor Control (SFC) – MRP helps companies more efficiently purchase and time deliveries of materials, while SFC provides real-time visibility into production status and enables more-efficient and balanced productivity.
  • Logistics solutions – more-effectively manage deliveries, inventories and distribution.
  • EDI – increases efficient distribution and omnichannel retail processes.

Mark Burstein, president of sales, marketing and R&D, NGC Software:
The latest generation of fashion PLM and Supply Chain Management (SCM) systems break down enterprise barriers by connecting the data and systems in an organisation to drive better decision-making. It's what we call "PLM 3.0"; it includes integrated PLM and SCM, but there's so much more to it than that. It takes PLM beyond its traditional role, turning PLM into an enterprise platform that shares data among key stakeholders in every department of a company, as well as third parties such as vendors, suppliers, product testing labs, logistics providers and more.

PLM 3.0 serves as an enterprise hub for the entire product lifecycle, pulling in information from systems including:

  • Forecasting and Planning
  • Development
  • Sourcing and Supply Chain Management
  • Compliance
  • Production
  • Quality
  • Logistics
  • Finance
  • Sales
  • Social

PLM 3.0 takes information from all these systems and data sources, shares and analyses it, and executes decisions based on the results. Every stakeholder shares in the information, which is important, since issues in one part of the organisation have ripple effects upstream or downstream.

This represents a big step forward. Today, issues that happen in production aren't shared in a timely manner with decision-makers upstream, where problems can be quickly resolved. Companies must improve across all areas of concept to adoption, and PLM 3.0 is essential for this.

Bill Brewster, vice president, general manager, Enterprise Software Solutions, Gerber Technology:
Software is essential for enabling apparel brands, retailers and manufacturers to manage and thrive in an environment of increasingly complex challenges throughout the supply chain. Streamlining processes and standardising data with PLM to ensure one version of the truth from concept to production keeps the cost modelling constant throughout the entire supply chain. CAD software that integrates to your PLM system allows efficiency in the exchange of data across the supply chain without redundant data entry that reduces productivity and increases errors. Having both a PLM and CAD system that integrates with an ERP system will allow apparel companies to better collaborate and manage their entire process and supply chain, enabling them to keep pace with consumer trends.

Christophe Therrey, EMEA sales and marketing director, Centric Software:
PLM allows for closer and more accurate collaboration with suppliers, in real-time. Everything from managing capacity and material blocks to making sure that the supplier is paid correctly and on time can be achieved with PLM. The resulting status of being the "buyer of choice" and "easiest to do business with" goes a long way to ensure continued availability of production capacity.

A properly functioning and maintained PLM system results in fewer manual processes and larger throughput. An expanding business volume can be handled without adding costly resources. Furthermore, the visibility and predictability of production and shipments result in a decreased need for a "safety net" – and subsequently gives the benefit of shorter lead times while also allowing for a lower level of on-hand average inventory levels. When having to compete for production space and capacity, being transparent, predictable, reliable and also a good paymaster gives the buyer a leg-up on others.

PLM will enable the apparel buyer to introduce and manage aspects of the business that can result in further cost reductions. Bulk manufacturing commitments with a supplier, combined with bulk fabric commitments, allows for more competitive costing. The predictability of business and the efficiency gains result in lower supplier operating cost.

Factory audits and vendor compliance can also be managed with PLM. At the same time and further into the supply chain, material and production compliance as well as shipping and documentation compliance can be set up and monitored leading to further economies.

Andrew Brown, group managing director, Fast React Systems Limited:
First and foremost, the days of heavy reliance on intensely manual and disconnected systems for vital parts of the business process are numbered. A flexible and responsive industry simply can't achieve its goals unless time-consuming manual processes, which still include a multitude of Excel spreadsheets, are eliminated.

For buyers, shorter lead times and greater 'responsiveness' to market trends requires a new style development cycle that is fast, effective and well prioritised. PLM is now well established and the more capable systems can manage the development cycle well. Effective demand planning and forecasting is also vital, acknowledged by the investment currently evident in this area.

Many of the systems in use between buyer and supplier remain very manual and, whilst this is changing, there is still a huge requirement for improved systems as part of more strategic supply partnerships.

Suppliers need to be able demonstrate that both their production facilities and their supporting systems are capable of handling the speed and flexibility required. Lean needs to go beyond sewing lines; productivity improvement needs to go beyond the sewing worker, the 'superman'/'firefighting' we pride ourselves on has to go…IT is a key enabler to help drive these changes.

Good IT systems are essential to good performance. Software allows faster and more accurate processing of data to provide more realistic targets, considering varied rules. It allows a business to collect data and analyse its performance to see variances/trends and target improved performance.

Céline Choussy-Bedouet, CMO, Lectra:
Fully-integrated digital platforms are providing the connectivity and agility that fashion companies need today. Stand-alone solutions help to answer specific needs, but true value is achieved only when solutions are fully integrated, part of an optimised process serving the expanded needs of the business and accepted by users.

The beauty of a digital platform's full integration with dedicated fashion applications is that it does much more than connecting creative teams, technical teams and suppliers. Designers, product developers and business teams involved in the development of a collection continue to work in their own natural environments, all-the-while connected to a common platform for the sharing of information in real time. With no need for data re-entry, they reconcile creative and commercial aspects of the business harmoniously in record time.

Fully-integrated digital solutions also act as a real catalyst for change. They enable fashion companies to re-consider existing processes and assumptions made concerning their supply chain, motivating them to re-invent themselves to create better product faster and boost their business performance.

But let's be realistic: technology alone cannot take fashion companies to an ultimate level of performance. Expertise and experience in business and production processes are a must to be able to succeed and thrive. It is thus all the more important to find the right partner to support continuous improvement and transform businesses to adapt to a new era.

Susan Olivier, vice president, Consumer Goods & Retail industry, Dassault Systèmes:
The apparel industry inspires people and makes them extremely demanding. Creativity, innovation and speed are indispensable prerequisites. Responding through the limitations of legacy supply chains can be costly and slow. But limitation has no place in the digital world: disruptive inspiration, original concepts and ideas, can be easy to test, evaluate and increasingly easy to produce in the digital world, giving the competitive advantage to brands and retailers that adopt it.

When imagination has zero limits, software can help test design iterations at zero cost in a virtual world. A digitalised and robust technology functions as the single source of truth, breaks silos, enhances collaboration across all teams and departments, and improves efficiency and speed to market by 15% to 50%. Increasingly model and image-driven, today's software can digitally and visually connect apparel firms, enabling them to efficiently manage their complex and diverse supply chains and generate direct product cost savings of 5-7% while improving visibility, flexibility and decision support at all levels. And incorporating more make-to-order and personalisation options into the supply chain can virtually eliminate product markdowns on select items.

Sander Schoneveld, managing director, K3 Software Solutions:
Looking at the supply chain, technology can help the fashion industry carry out activities not directly related to product development and production, it allows time to be put into product and production, while making the process more efficient. Examples include:

  • (Pre-)Allocation: allocate goods before they are received;
  • Cross-docking: the supplier packs and ships goods by customer – the warehouse receives and ships out within hours, if it receives at all;
  • Bonded warehousing: shipping goods out before clearing from customs;
  • One-time entry: data entry can be done anytime, anywhere. When linking suppliers (product and services) in the process onto systems, data entry should not stop product development or sampling processes;
  • The use of pre-packs in the logistics stream is becoming more important for a lot of retailers as well as wholesalers. A good system solution should include functionality to cover this increasing need. Using pre-packs is a way to save cost and increase margins.

Better planning:

  • Cost-saving: business planning to ensure only the required products are developed (reduce the drop percentage), becoming more efficient across the whole company;
  • Speed. Producing one garment is measured in minutes. Producing fabrics and trims is measured in days. The total production process is measured in weeks. Better planning reduces lead-time, while ensuring suppliers that capacity is utilised, through blocking capacity, pre-ordering materials and even products;
  • Quality: by allocating the right supplier based on skills, capacity and cost for each product, better products will be produced;
  • Sourcing: through a sourcing plan, knowing the sourcing capacities and capabilities per supplier, it is possible to locate bottlenecks in an early stage, which helps to select the right supplier for every product looking at speed, cost and quality.

Looking at the whole business:

  • Channel integration: coming to a true omnichannel environment (one system, one stock, one process, across all channels), with a single look and feel experience for the consumer.
  • More accuracy and decision-making based on facts: one-version-of-the-truth.

Guido Brackelsberg, managing director, Setlog:
Full transparency of your supply chain can only be reached if you have one portal with which you manage all information from different players. No matter if the information comes from your internal PLM, ERP, PDM systems or from external partners like suppliers, factories, forwarders, testing institutes, auditors, it needs to be linked with each other on different levels and to be managed in one place, globally. Additionally, one portal, i.e. a single point of truth, enables companies to follow standardised processes for all their operations.

Peter Needle, CEO and co-founder, Segura Systems:
Brands may have ethical working practices in place and may even audit their suppliers, but could still be caught out if an unknown vendor enters the supply chain. The crux of this problem usually lies in a lack of visibility over what are often extremely complicated global supply chains.

Software can help by firstly supporting businesses to map and clarify their supply chains. Doing this will not only help them to confirm exactly who their suppliers are, but also the items they are approved to supply.

Taking this a step further, brands can use software to help maintain the integrity of their supply chains by tracking in real-time the orders for each individual component. This makes it much easier to spot instances of unauthorised subcontracting, as well as other issues such as order quantity discrepancies and rebate fraud.

Where required, the same system can even monitor order fulfilment so brands can close the loop, seeing exactly where each item is coming from.

When used alongside thorough auditing, this type of system can enable a business to gain true ethical compliance, knowing that all of the components for their garments are solely supplied by companies that employ good working practices.

Bob McKee, global fashion industry strategy director, Infor:
Software can support a global omnichannel commerce environment, especially the issues of the consumer being more and more in control and the increased need for same day pick, pack and ship. Of course the process needs to start with the right assortment/product and marketing, but businesses have to fulfil on-time, every time. And offer choice in where the customer can interact and buy a given brand or product. If this choice is not on offer, the business will suffer.

To handle cost pressures, integrated financials and analytics help track and manage costs. A great product or collection may sell well, but if a business cannot do it profitably or have to markdown heavily, the business may struggle to survive.

Many companies are re-engineering from end to end to meet the requirements of the digital world. Whether they do this in one big step or more pragmatically, they need a strategy and investment plan to address the needs of today and tomorrow. It has been said for some time that information is where the value is in the future. As the world gets faster and faster, customers get more demanding, products will change at an ever-increasing rate, so the only way to manage a business successfully is through access to relevant, up to the date information and KPIs.

Click on the following links to read other reports in this management briefing:

Apparel software trends 2016 – Key supply chain challenges

Apparel software trends 2016 – Where to focus future spend

Apparel software trends 2016 – What else to watch?