Clothing companies can reap rich rewards from using a product lifecycle management (PLM) system, with faster time-to-market one of the clearest advantages of using these tools. And major advances in the software's capabilities now make it the core data hub that brings together planning, design, sourcing, production, logistics and replenishment.

PLM applications have grown in scope well beyond their initial tech pack management functions and have now become the core data hub for most apparel companies.

And they should link seamlessly across a business, spanning product and material creation, as well as compliance testing, assessing vendor capabilities and capacity, material positioning, production WIP (work in progress), quality control and finished goods distribution. 

"Five years ago people were just looking at PLM + ERP [enterprise resource planning]," says Clayton Parker, director, PLM product management, at Gerber Technology. "Now it's PLM + 3D Design + Pattern Design + Digital Artwork Design + Colour Development + any other 3rd party solution."

A significant number of new applications can now work with PLM to manage critical parts of the value chain, adds Mark Burstein, president of US-based NGC Software. 

"For example, vendor management can streamline vendor onboarding and ongoing management, since all necessary documentation – standards of vendor engagement, compliance documents, certifications, audit results and more – reside in a central location that's instantly accessible." 

This allows brands and retailers to make more intelligent sourcing decisions from their PLM application, he explains.

Quality management is another example. New applications can help ensure the right level of quality and risk mitigation as products move from the design phase of PLM into production. Bringing quality control into an enterprise platform will also help companies identify problems sooner, reducing the risk of cancellations, chargebacks and returns while protecting a brand's reputation.

Leveraging 3D and PLM

Connecting solutions such as 3D design and virtual prototyping with PLM systems can help create a digital supply chain and open up new opportunities, value and speed – but integration is key.

"PLM and 3D applications must be integrated into a digital supply chain that connects all areas of the fashion enterprise," says Burstein. "This ensures collaboration and a seamless flow of information, connecting product development and sampling with every area of the value chain."

But technical and process challenges in successfully leveraging this integration can include the creation of very large 3D modelling design files. 

"Combine this with spotty internet coverage in many manufacturing regions, and staff in factories can have difficulty in retrieving the 3D designs," says Peter Leith, vice president of operations at iSync Solutions. "To mitigate this, systems need to be able to compress the files appropriately and have back-up 2D options in certain situations when time is of the essence."

He adds that on the process side, additional time spent creating well-developed 3D models can help speed remaining design and manufacturing processes in order to adhere closely to planned steps and timing. "In general, the benefits outweigh the challenges of implementing a successful 3D modelling, PLM and supply chain process," he states.

Burstein adds that as when interfacing any two systems, data integrity between PLM and 3D systems can be a challenge, so mapping out the process ahead of time is critical. Companies must determine which elements of 3D are required to be in PLM and which are not necessary. 

"User adoption is also important, just as it is with any software implementation. Adoption from internal users will be best achieved if the most forward thinking and willing people are selected to use the technology first." 

What next for PLM?

PLM systems have a central role to play as the clothing industry embraces aspects of Industry 4.0, such as smart factories and the Internet of Things (IoT). 

Fully implemented cloud-based supply chain platforms will become essential for clothing brands running a successful global operation and needing to quickly deliver products that are in high demand. 

Burstein believes that PLM cloud platforms will be able to instantaneously evaluate all distribution options throughout a supply chain and implement optimal solutions, including reprioritising factory production orders, booking transportation services and directing delivery destinations (including direct-to-consumer right from the factory). 

They are also likely to funnel consumer wishes into the entire process, from raw materials procurement through to finished goods, with PLM-managed feedback ensuring that brand owners always stay relevant and provide their customers with the products they desire.

This monitoring of market desire will also strengthen as the gaming, cinema and fashion technology industries converge.

Indeed, PLM must be part of an overall product development and supply chain ecosystem that can read changing demand signals, enabling brands to quickly react to consumer demand, explains Burstein. "Speed is critically important here, since fashion and entertainment trends come and go quickly, based on what movie is hot right now, what a certain celebrity wore to the Oscars, etc."

Such sophisticated market mirroring indicates how PLM may well in future encompass machine learning, big data analysis and even artificial intelligence. 

Indeed, leading brands and retailers may even move towards a common supply chain platform that will eventually utilise artificial intelligence to analyse big data and autonomously make decisions and initiate transactions faster than humans.

This is an abridged version of three articles that appear in the latest issue of the new free just-style magazine. Click here to read more.