Apparel and textile manufacturers looking to streamline their supply chains can benefit from product lifecycle management (PLM) software, which can boost communications and risk management between suppliers and retailers.

"There's a lot of new technology that's been introduced in the last few years that helps manage that supply chain - everything from the finances, the logistics, quality, design, right through into merchandising," explains Robert Cammilleri, senior account executive of business development at US-based safety consulting company, UL (Underwriters Laboratories Inc).

For instance, India-based World Fashion Exchange's WFX Cloud PLM is an innovative cloud-based PLM solution that can connect retailers to manufacturers.

This is especially important when brands and retailers typically outsource to suppliers located in other parts of the world such as China, India, and Vietnam, says CEO Jatin Paul.

"One of the key challenges that [our customers] face and where products like this help, is communicating exactly what they need to their vendors quickly, effectively, throughout the product development process."

For instance, brands can track the effects of making changes such as altering components, changing design elements or even colours on the supply chain, as well as informing suppliers quickly of this decision.

One way this solution fosters fast supply chains is by speeding up communications by enabling participants to log into the same platform. It offers access to product updates and changes in real time, critical path management, shipment tracking, and even the sharing of purchase orders.

"You start reducing your product turnaround lead times because you're able to execute processes more efficiently and communicate information to your global vendor base immediately; you can shave off days," explains Paul, stressing that when supply chain participants access the same information, errors are minimised.

Managing supply risks
Software solutions can also help brands manage supply risks involved in sourcing overseas, says James Horne, vice president of marketing at US-based Centric Software. Centric's customers include US-based Fox Head, Canada-based Silver Jeans, France-based Christine Laure, and New York-based Proenza Schouler.

American brands, for instance, can save a lot of money through international outsourcing. But the downside is a potential increase in supply chain risks. This software can help brands monitor and assess those risks, he explains: "The risk issue is as much in people's minds as speed."

Centric offers its Factory Audit Mobile App (or mobile application) as part of its Centric 8 PLM solution, which can speed up supply chain auditing, according to Horne.

Auditors working for a brand can conduct on-site factory audits, documenting via a smart mobile device such as a smartphone or a tablet any necessary text, photographs, or audio files (recorded using the device). The app helps keep track of which factories have been audited and roll out an audit quickly.

The audit data can be saved to the Centric 8 PLM system instantly via an internet connection, or be saved on the mobile device offline and uploaded later.

Companies can also configure audit questions as their needs change. For example, factory collapses in Bangladesh have altered what companies need to be auditing for.

"If you think about the disasters in Bangladesh, companies were auditing product for consumer product safety, they were auditing factories for environmental impact, fair labour practices...and now, all of a sudden, everyone's gotten this shock.

"Whereas before [a company] was often asking environmental questions and worker questions from a fair labour point of view, now [it] needs to ask a whole other set of safety questions," he notes.

"A part of speed is being able to watch how costs change and have a nimble supply chain to respond to the fact that costs change," explains Horne, adding that PLM solutions can help do this by collecting, uploading, and organising supply chain information so it can be analysed quickly.

Supply chains can work faster by companies distributing PLM solutions to the manufacturers as well as using it at their headquarters.

Horne notes those companies that performed more efficiently did this, allowing the manufacturer to share information directly rather than going through the company's regional agent using email or Excel.

A successful fast supply chain ultimately needs, along with speedy suppliers, accurate data shared across the chain for proper management.

"If I actually proceed with reckless speed to, say, foreign countries and I don't put in place the proper things to manage the risk side, then I could potentially have a big problem," which in turn hinders the supply chain, says Horne.

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