Where should apparel firms be focusing their software investments now if they want to remain competitive into the future? According to industry experts consulted by just-style, technology agendas should include tools that better integrate all data between supply chain partners and offer end-to-end visibility, flexibility and speed.

Esther Lutz, VP of business development, TradeCard Europe
They have to build flexibility into their processes and supply chains. They should investigate where they can automate and eliminate manual steps. They should collaboratively work with their suppliers to take out cost altogether and have a few Plan Bs ready in case of issues. They should strive for solutions that represent a win-win for them and their suppliers.

Bob McKee, global fashion industry strategy director, Infor
The dominant theme in manufacturing remains the ability to change at speed - and nowhere is this need for speed and agility more pressing than fashion and apparel.

According to IDC Manufacturing Insights, manufacturers are recognising this need for agility. In the 2012 whitepaper 'In Pursuit of Operational Excellence: Accelerating Business Change Through Next Generation ERP,' IDC reported that when asked what was on their three-year ERP wish list, 72% of the manufacturers surveyed said: "React faster to the changes the business needs." The ability to streamline processes, improve collaboration, and get products to market faster - all answers relating to speed - also ranked among the top responses.

The over-riding criteria for any technology investment should be: "Will this improve the agility and speed of my business?" This may translate to a whole host of areas: the response to external market factors, the speed of new product development and delivery, the agility and speed (and subsequent productivity) of the workforce, and the speed of supply chain processes. But the focus needs to be on enabling the business to move faster and sharper than the competition.

Susan Olivier, vice president, consumer goods and retail, Dassault Systèmes
Apparel firms should be looking at investments that drive the top line rather than the bottom line. What's going to help you identify and develop the right products and improve turnover and full-priced sales? Then firms need to shorten lead times through better collaboration in sourcing for right-first-time samples, designed for commercialisation.

James Horne, VP of marketing and business development, Centric Software
Experts agree that return on investment (ROI) provided by an investment in product lifecycle management (PLM) technology is perhaps the highest an apparel firm can achieve. PLM enables more effective and productive management of all product development-related processes - development, sourcing, quality management, line planning, merchandising and sales - and that converts directly to bottom-line results.

Apparel firms also can start to look toward increasingly sophisticated mobile technology to fill gaps in the traditional uses of PLM. No longer just a vision, mobile apps help expand the reach and scope of PLM's benefits to processes outside of the traditional role of PLM: sample development and review, trend capture, collection book presentation and factory compliance audits.

Mark Burstein, president of sales, marketing and R&D, NGC
Integrated PLM and supply chain management (SCM)/global sourcing systems are essential. Fashion PLM investments have continued to increase year-over-year, and companies are now focused on extending the benefits of PLM all the way through to sourcing and logistics.

When PLM and SCM are fully integrated, PLM can move beyond its traditional role in product development and pre-production into the critical areas of supply chain management: purchase order creation, request for quotations (RFQs) and supplier management, production management and work in process tracking, quality control, product testing and compliance, and inbound logistics.

This integrated approach enables closer communication and accountability through the design/production lifecycle. It's also the key to managing cost, reducing lead times and improving overall quality.

Michael Hung, CEO of Core Solutions
With the on-going rapid growth in e-commerce, apparel and other retailers and brands have focused their investments on developing their multi-channel, omni-channel and mobile capabilities. At the same time they have focused on growth in developing markets and refreshing their physical stores.

These are all worthwhile investments; however we believe that many firms are so focused on the latest trend that they ignore the basics, which includes their supply chains. We view an investment in the supply chain as low hanging fruit where focusing on improving a series of standard processes offers certainty of a promising return that may be elusive in other revenue growth strategies.

Amazon is a textbook case of a retailer that has seen its significant investment in supply chain technology help drive phenomenal growth across a wide range of categories. The way of the future for apparel retailers and brands is through an efficient and nimble supply chain able to quickly respond to consumer trends. This is where apparel firms should be looking to invest.

Andrew Brown, managing director, Fast React
New product development (PLM): The critical path part of PLM supports the development phase to achieve an on time range selection and buying process. To reduce manual work and errors, PLM offers improved document handling (of technical packs for example), including version control. It should also provide an enhanced document sharing mechanism between buyer and supplier. This is vital in the face of shorter cycle times, where accuracy and fast sharing of information are a necessity.

Improved sourcing control: Following on from the new product development (PLM) stage, the next step quick is accurate tracking of pre-production activities to ensure on-time production start, also the tracking of latest purchase order (PO) status. Effective IT solutions must include the ability to share information across multiple locations, provide clear prioritisation (visual if possible) and make effective use of exception reporting. They should also include an 'early warning' mechanism to 'flag up' urgent items, when slippage occurs.

Improved capacity and critical path (CP) control for manufacturers: Good production planning software replaces manual methods that are increasingly struggling to cope with the latest industry demands. Addressing this issue is rapidly becoming a top priority for many businesses and is key to achieving productivity improvements, cost reductions, flexibility and speed of response. Effective planning must consider all aspects of capacity, materials and critical path management together in a single system.

Judy Gnaedig, director, strategic projects - fashion, Lectra
Apparel companies need to automate the execution of product development from design to production, including pattern design, and link it to merchandise planning to stand out from the competition.

Too many apparel companies continue to work manually within key parts of the supply chain. This requires investment in PLM technology, including design tools, line planning and product engineering tools, where appropriate.

Mary Beth Borland, worldwide director of RFA Strategy, PTC
Companies should focus their investments in technology areas that demonstrate the greatest return on investment. Two such areas are materials management and supplier integration. Knowing where you use your materials and who you purchase them from allows you to buy "bulk material" for items across your enterprise versus by brand. This can generate an enormous cost savings.

Additionally, bringing suppliers into the process earlier and enabling greater design collaboration will not only reduce cycle time and help create better products for the consumer, but also lower material and production costs due to reduced prototype or sample costs.

Ben Muis, managing director at Conceptable.com and 1970i.com, fashion industry process and PLM expert
Fashion companies should think about how their technology investments provide their teams with process guiding flexibility. Too many companies have made themselves rigid for reporting purposes without actually building in the ability to adapt or implement new processes. Even large organisations need to have a way of being nimble.

Some of the companies I have consulted for in the last few years were looking at how they could turn their current situation into one that could not only make them more able to respond, but could allow them to become leaders in their sector. Sometimes this meant taking brave steps into a new world for those that have been working in a certain way for many years.

From an investment point of view it means that you need to be more holistic in your approach. You can no longer focus on just solving one of today's problems. You need to make your investment decisions based on the ability to adapt in the future with the assumption that the market and the company will change.

Which tools give you the most adaptability, the most mobility, the most flexibility, the least cost prohibition, the shortest route to completion and (crucially) the best integration options?

That combination of factors together with great processes across your product and supply chain teams can save any business a few red faces and a lot of cash every year.