Faced with a raft of challenges across the apparel supply chain, how can software help tackle the key issues? Tools that connect all trading partners, streamline the end-to-end process, and give industry leaders the flexibility and time to address everything from new opportunities to unexpected events can all contribute to a competitive edge.

Esther Lutz, VP of business development, TradeCard Europe
RFID and cloud solutions are two key technologies that are ready for prime time. RFID tagged-at-source allows tracking of inventory along the entire value chain, from factory floor to shop floor. Shrinkage can be pinpointed easily, and inventory can be distributed where it's needed and replenished to avoid out-of-stocks.

With 84% of all supply chain information being housed in external systems, a cloud supply chain management platform is the only way to share and access that data easily, quickly and at a reasonable cost with acceptable data quality. When all parties identify themselves and leverage data that is already on the shared platform, adding their own data for every transaction becomes faster, more streamlined and efficient. The cost and risk of transactions go down. Margins are being preserved.

Bob McKee, global fashion industry strategy director, Infor
The issues of multi-channel are not confined to the front end of the experience. Fashion businesses need to develop digital commerce that can deliver a great customer experience, regardless of platform, as well as link to back-end systems. One of the truisms of the fashion industry is that businesses cannot sell what they cannot get, so the e-commerce system has to have accurate, up-to-date product choice, availability and pricing information. That brings it into the realms of enterprise resource planning (ERP).

By integrating the e-commerce system that takes an order with the ERP solution that satisfies it, fashion businesses can solve one of the biggest issues to threaten profitability: the inability to deliver on an order.

Accurate information on the inventory available, specifically quantity and location, is the critical building block of the "capability to promise" an accurate delivery date. At a more sophisticated level, this needs to include the time needed for transit and a range of other factors. However, none of these factors can be experimented with in the real world, so the capability to accurately model and simulate a supply chain, and then apply the lessons to its "real world" equivalent is critical.   

One of the lessons of the European market is that if an e-commerce application is integrated with inventory applications or ERP, it is much easier to create, maintain and exploit profitable links with customers. The end game here would be a process with so few steps that products are sent directly from manufacturing to customer, with no-one in the chain any the wiser. This reflects the second truism of fashion - that fashion businesses cannot sell what people don't want.

So if an e-commerce system can relay what a customer is more likely to buy (in terms of preferences of size, fabric, colour, quantity etc) and also how they are more likely to buy (via which channel) then a fashion brand, manufacturer or retailer is in a stronger position.

Susan Olivier, vice president, consumer goods and retail, Dassault Systèmes
Software in the apparel supply chain started with a focus on operational efficiency and global connectivity. Now it's got to be about driving revenue and improving margins to be business-relevant.  

Winning brands and retailers are those that can create a 360-degree view of their customer base, their market potential and their physical and online sales capacities; link those to their planning and product development pipeline;and maintain real-time visibility to sales and pipeline decisions.

What are you selling? What's the social and sentiment analysis of your customers and potential customers on what you're not selling? What products are under development compared to what the market is telling you? How streamlined can you make your speed-to-market cycle in order to get the maximum inputs before making a decision? This takes better analytics across multiple systems combined with web-based insights and even the ability to poll your customer focus groups on designs under consideration using product images (2D photos or sketches and increasingly 3D). 

James Horne, VP of marketing and business development, Centric Software
To help tackle the issue of compliance risk and management, software that is easy to use and approachable can make the brand owner's and the supplier's jobs easier. This creates a "win-win" that can strengthen the relationship between the two.

To help tackle the issue of compliance management, factory audit mobile apps have become a reality. Auditors - whether direct staff or third-parties - can record data on the spot in factories as they conduct assessments, enter ratings for each category, and note and examine specific compliance issues such as safety, age, discrimination, wage or harassment.

Using mobile devices can make it easier for the brand owner, a third-party auditor and the factory team to stay "on the same page" about requirements, results, and areas that need improvement. A major benefit of these apps is their ability to help the auditor become more efficient. Such improved efficiency improves the likelihood of more frequent, cost-effective audits. These, in turn, create a correspondingly higher likelihood of adherence to compliance standards. 

Mark Burstein, president of sales, marketing and R&D, NGC
Many PLM and supply chain management systems include features for vendor compliance, which can help ensure that factories are providing safe working conditions and complying with regulatory and social mandates.

Vendor profiles can include each supplier's current compliance audits, performance and quality history, and other information, which is available through a web-based portal, so that factories and apparel companies can share the same information. In addition, crucial information such as factory safety records and vendor scorecards can be stored in these systems and reviewed at any time, along with the company's standards of vendor engagement, which can help ensure that factories comply with a company's sourcing standards and policies.

These systems typically include calendars that can alert companies about audit and re-certification dates. If factories don't pass the audit, the systems can alert fashion companies - the factories must either be brought into compliance, or they will be removed from the list of authorised suppliers.

Ben Muis, managing director at Conceptable.com and 1970i.com, fashion industry process and PLM expert
Fashion is a complicated industry. Unlike many companies that work on a new product launch every few years, a typical fashion brand will launch several hundred products every season. Each of these is made up of components from different suppliers in different locations, have measurements and construction details, go through a series of prototypes, lab-dips and approvals and then get sold in different scenarios and locations.

Increasing the complexity on the sourcing side can send any product or supply chain team into a high-risk situation where mistakes are very costly. This is why software becomes more important as complexity grows.

It comes as no surprise that there is an increasing demand for systems that can genuinely control the product development cycle.

PLM (product lifecycle management) systems fill the gaping hole in data and process control many companies have before a product becomes an item that can actually be sold. Options for companies with reduced budgets and lack of time come in the form of cloud-based fashion PLM systems, which give the added flexibility of being able to work from anywhere.

Another hot topic is collaboration with the supply base, and a good system will make supplier integration easy.

In reality, a good specialist Fashion PLM system, which allows collaboration with your suppliers and feeds your ERP or finance systems, can do wonders for speed, visibility and control within even smaller organisations.

Andrew Brown, managing director, Fast React
All businesses are successful in doing some of the right things, some of the time, to varying degrees. Implementing good software and working practices can help a business to be more consistent by improving visibility, providing clear priorities and coordination, also highlighting the exceptions for fast action when they inevitably occur.

Fire-fighting is the accepted norm in both fashion sourcing and manufacturing, but the cost of that in terms of failure, corrective action and 'wear and tear' on people is not sustainable. Many businesses say 'Internally we are ok and it's our suppliers who cause us problems', but in reality there is so much more they can do themselves to be proactive and address this.

Judy Gnaedig, director, strategic projects - fashion, Lectra
The good news is that the software needed to manage the apparel supply chain from design to production does exist and can be managed from the brand or the retail centre.

Product lifecycle management solutions are of course key, and ideally include a platform approach that enables companies to link the design and data management activities to the product engineering activities. Brands and retailers are now equipping themselves with the technology that enables them to manage and have visibility of their own product development process from end to end and are no longer delegating this to their suppliers to the same extent. This is certainly because the stakes for brand integrity and cost management are keys to business success.

Mary Beth Borland, worldwide director of RFA Strategy, PTC
Today, product development is a global process and product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions are the backbone technology that enables and supports the development of new innovative products into the market place.

PLM provides visibility across merchandising, design, product development and the supply chain to maximise speed, agility, efficiency and margin. With PLM, all teams can collaborate beginning very early in product development and make quick decisions from concept to store.

PLM ensures that trend-right products get to market faster, without sacrificing margin or quality by creating a collaborative supply chain that is not seen as an outsider but as a part of the product innovation team.

Through greater collaboration and visibility across all roles, PLM eliminates inefficiencies in the product development process and reduces cycle time. PLM also identifies key cost-drivers in the product development process, enabling decision-makers to easily identify savings.

Michael Hung, CEO, Core Solutions
Getting product to market on time and on-trend with minimal markdowns is only possible with a carefully orchestrated supply chain, enabled by technology. This is especially true for private label and direct sourced products. The right software provides transparency and visibility across the end-to-end supply chain, from the planning and concept stage of product development right to delivery and finance.

Once retailers and brands begin to shift away from time-consuming and inefficient manual processes and tools such as spreadsheets, they have traditionally adopted product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions, which automate the product development process. An Extended PLM solution covers the entire end-to-end supply chain, from concept-to-delivery. The results of such a system include significant improvements in lead-times, cost reductions and operational efficiencies, which help translate into higher profits.