Product lifecycle management (PLM) systems help apparel companies share information more efficiently and plan for future lines more accurately as time-to-market shrinks.

Software such as the WFX Cloud PLM helps speed up companies' processes from product concept and design to delivery at stores, says Jatin Paul, CEO of WFX (World Fashion Exchange).

US-based WFX is a global software provider, with most of its operations at its India R&D centre and offices across the US, Europe, and south Asia. Its customers include Forever New (Australia), Darling Clothes (UK), DownEast Basics (US).

The system creates a single platform for a company's supply chain information, helping more efficient communication. "The cloud-based PLM helps communicate what you [the company] want developed faster to the factories overseas and helps you manage your iteration process more quickly so that you reduce errors," he says.

For instance, Paul notes, companies can upload information on what they want to produce and what price points they want to hit, and the PLM will immediately notify suppliers (to whom the company has given access to the PLM) so that they can provide quotes as soon as possible. "A process that typically takes a week can happen within 48 hours," he adds.

In the past year, WFX also added the ability for suppliers to input directly into the PLM shipping information beyond the shipment date that is crucial to companies' warehouses, including what product and how many units.

WFX has also added a new collection planning module that allows companies to forecast an entire, expected line based on information input such as targeted price points and margins, and expected product categories, units, and colourways. Designers can then create within those parameters; and companies can plan products better and farther in advance.

In August, WFX launched a 'Quality Control' app for the Apple iPad to help inspectors at factories operate more efficiently. When inspectors examine product quality prior to shipping, they can enter into the app their findings, including photos, as they go. The app also works without an internet connection and syncs to the WFX Cloud PLM once it is online.

Flow of information
Meanwhile, Anastasia Charbin, worldwide fashion and apparel marketing director of France-based Lectra, notes that Lectra's Fashion PLM is a crucial tool for apparel companies to speed up their supply chain.

"What a PLM will do for you is connect the dots... [and] allow for the flow of information," she adds. Key participants throughout a company's supply chain can have access to and update, in real time, the same information including delivery dates, product information and quantities, supplier information, and who is responsible for certain tasks.

"Since you have all information centralised and you have access to product information, but also the sourcing and vendor information, you're able to react very, very rapidly," says Jean-Marc Galea, Lectra's PLM worldwide marketing manager.

The company launched the latest version of its PLM in February and included updates such as the integration of tools used by textile designers, such as Adobe Illustrator, to enhance collaboration with product design teams such as pattern developers.

Charbin adds that Lectra is working on improving its PLM capability for companies to 'design to cost,' planning for the total cost of the finished product from the beginning. Designers can put the product specifications into the PLM as they design and the system takes into account, for instance, the necessary average unit price of a particular fabric, how much fabric will be used, and labour costs.

While PLM can be a key tool in managing fast fashion, Charbin stresses that companies still need to improve the efficiency of their underlying business processes: "It's really about how you use the computer," she says.

The most recent customers for Lectra Fashion PLM include US-based Zumba Fitness (which produces sportswear) and Aokang Shoes (a Chinese footwear producer).

Collaboration in China
US-based Centric Software expects its Centric 8 PLM will help apparel companies in Asia better manage fast fashion as the company expands into that market, according to Humberto Roa, Centric's product manager.

"The way we've streamlined this collaboration is resonating really well with prospects in China. That's just an everyday part of their life, working directly with companies inside and outside of China."

Centric announced the opening of its Shanghai office - its first in Asia - in August. The company had announced a few days before (July 29) that it had secured US$24m in growth capital, in part to support the expansion. In January, it signed its first Chinese customer, Cache Cache China, a women's clothing retailer.

Roa adds one aspect of the PLM that could particularly benefit Chinese customers is the 'streamlining partners' feature, allowing companies to customise the level of access that their suppliers have to the PLM. For instance, long-standing, trusted suppliers could be allowed to make more changes and updates than, say, a new supplier: "This way we've streamlined this collaboration is resonating really well with prospects in China. That's just an everyday part of their life, working directly with companies inside and outside of China."

Centric 8 also facilitates communication throughout the supply chain using the most updated version of information, which is particularly important in fast fashion, says Roa. "When you start compressing the time, there's less room for errors and inefficiencies," he adds.

Time-to-market will continue to shrink, Paul forecasts. "10, 15 years ago, you typically worked off of four main seasons, which you still do but now they're monthly seasons and bi-monthly collections to constantly provide consumers with new options of products to buy," he says.

Companies will ultimately save time in planning, says Paul: "There is a minimum amount of time you need to manufacture a product on a factory floor. So whatever you can do to decrease that time is limited. You need to try to focus on tighter planning, quicker controls [and] fewer iterations."

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