With the need to check the safety of supply chains a growing concern, software providers are updating their products to help apparel and textile companies monitor their manufacturing and distribution partners.

The technology helps brands organise their suppliers as they become increasingly involved in ensuring outsourcer factories are safe and compliant with national and international standards.

California, US-based Centric Software, for instance, last year launched a Mobile Factory Audit App that meshes with its product lifecycle management (PLM) systems to streamline the collection of audit reports.

"We can know any time a supplier is connected to a product or material, or some aspect of these," said Humberto Roa, director of mobile strategies and products.

Auditors use this app via an Apple mobile device while on-site to complete audit reports either online or offline. The app automatically synchronises with the PLM when connected to the internet.

Roa added that companies can customise the standards they need to follow and monitor (including government, contractual, and social compliance requirements); list of questions requiring answers; methods of answering (such as through text, pictures, or checkmarks); validate their audits with electronic signatures; and create PDFs for easy printing.

The PLM tool - which companies can host internally or via Centric's cloud solution - shows the history of these reports and can create compliance status reports for all suppliers.

Centric is also looking to support devices using Windows and Android platforms, and to allow auditors on-site to immediately begin creating action plans with factory representatives to improve facilities. Roa noted most of Centric's customers are US-based apparel and textile companies.

Keeping track of suppliers
Another example is France-based Lectra's web-based Lectra Fashion PLM system. It helps apparel and textile companies keep track of suppliers and verify that they are meeting safety standards, said Philippe Ribera, software marketing director.

Among Lectra's customers are Italy-based Imperial and China-based Ellassay (both whom adopted the PLM earlier this year), and other customers based in Australia, Japan, Germany, and the US.

Companies can input into the PLM their desired standards, usually a mix of companies' own standards and applicable local regulations or laws - for instance, factory building safety and labour laws.

Ensuring suppliers are complying with factory safety standards is difficult but increasingly important, said Ribera.

Mapping the supply chain
Meanwhile, US-based TradeStone Software's merchandise lifecycle management solution for apparel and textile businesses also maps the entire supply chain and includes factory audit and inspection capabilities, linking to major inspection houses such as AsiaInspection, Intertek, and SGS.

The system, which companies can set to regularly prompt for scheduling physical supplier audits, also looks for patterns that might indicate safety risks.

For instance: "If we have Supplier A in Shenzhen [China] and we know that he has a capacity of 1,000 units a week and we also know that there are orders for 2,000 units a week, the supplier is most likely subcontracting to an alternative factory. In this scenario, these factories may not have been audited and therefore may not follow the same rigour in terms of compliance," noted Brian Marsden, the company's president.

He said this detailed supplier profiling can augment existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) software that can be "re-ordering blind" as it tracks a supplier's financial data and order history but lacks the visibility of supply chain compliance. Companies can also customise the system's actions and alerts when a supplier does not meet standards, varying from issuing a simple warning to the supplier, to blocking the placing of an order.

The system can incorporate companies' individual standards as well as automatically identify applicable regulatory standards such as those based on import customs regulations of the products' final destination, building safety regulations and labour laws in the suppliers' country.

Auditors can access it while on-site either via the internet or by pre-downloading any requirements onto a mobile device to work offline.

Detailed vendor profiles
New York, US-based Infor's PLM and ERP systems, (whose customers include Augusta Sportswear, Brandix, High Five Sportswear and Propper International), allow brands to maintain detailed vendor profiles, said Robert McKee, Infor's fashion industry strategy director.

The PLM can show users an overview of a brand's work history with a particular supplier, showing the likelihood of that supplier to continue operate ethically and maintain safety standards. Meanwhile, the ERP system keeps track of the actual execution of a particular set of orders. McKee added Infor is looking into enabling cloud solutions.

Broadcast service
Meanwhile, Montana, US-based TexBase Inc's corporate social responsibility broadcast service allows companies to distribute relevant guidance documents across their supply chain to drive a range of requirements, including audit documents for self-assessment.

"Brands have as much latitude as they wish to customise [factory audit documents]...they can run multiple versions of the same audit documents based on what country they're sending it to," said Joe Walkuski, TexBase's founder. Suppliers can also review these, act upon and upload them, and certify them with e-signatures.

Information online
France-based Dassault Systèmes, meanwhile, is looking at making its fashion PLM web-based, said Susan Olivier, vice president of consumer goods & retail industry solutions.

Currently, companies can give users different permissions to access their information online. "Knowing your factory relationships is critical," she added.

Dassault's system helps monitor a company's suppliers and their audit history, and allows the uploading and electronic signing-off for documents regarding factory safety.

Olivier added that multi-brand companies in particular are sharing information across the company so that if there are compliance issues in one factory that is supplying to different brands, all those brands will be notified.

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