Companies trying to determine if product lifecycle management (PLM) software solutions are right for them should note that size is not an obstacle; these systems can be useful to businesses of nearly any size.

Céline Choussy Bedouet, chief marketing and communications officer at France-based apparel PLM market leader Lectra, says there is no minimum turnover threshold to justify implementation of a PLM solution.

"A PLM implementation process entails a project management approach that is concise and gradual. A company can start implementing it by covering a small area with few people involved," she says.

"No matter the company size, the most important thing is to facilitate collaboration between different teams to improve time-to-market without sacrificing design quality and creativity. These two key elements are essential to the fashion industry," she adds.

Andrew Brown, managing director of UK-based Fast React Systems, agrees PLM makes sense even for small businesses with a limited number of users. "It's all about reducing the manual process and achieving a 'joined up' business process with as much connectivity as possible. Managing timelines, ie critical path (time and action) calendars, is a vital part of where a good PLM system can contribute heavily to effective prioritisation and coordination," he says.

The industry needs solutions that are both accessible to smaller companies but scalable to larger enterprises, according to Brown, with cloud services proving popular for this very reason. "Most providers are working hard to achieve standard 'entry level' solutions, with effective deployment that can appeal to a wider group of customers and the 'software as a service' [SaaS] model helps with this goal," he says.

Out-of-the-box options

Some PLM specialists say ready-to-use 'out-of-the-box' or 'plug and play' solutions can also bring down costs, reducing customisation to a bare minimum. While they can be restrictive in prescribing standard formats for components like tech packs, which may need to be customised, out-of-the-box solutions also offer considerable advantages.

Ken Fearnley, chief technology officer at US-based software provider Simparel, for instance, has advocated out-of-the-box solutions as an opportunity to take advantage of the experiences of industry peers.

"For example, say a fashion business wants to engage in omnichannel order fulfilment but is unsure of the best approach. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the firm can ride the coat tails of those who have already been there and done that. They can leverage out-of-the-box software from a vendor whose technology has matured to meet omnichannel fulfilment challenges," he wrote in company documentation on out-of-the-box.

Whether out-of-the-box, fully-customised or a mix of both, a company needs to have a degree of information technology maturity to fully leverage the benefits of a PLM system. Most PLM vendors provide support during implementation, although according to Bedouet, "in order to achieve optimal results, we need to have a combination of both in-house and external support".

Large PLM vendors, such as Siemens (Germany), SAP (Germany), Gerber Technology (US) and PTC (US) offer their own training courses to develop in-house capacity, although extending PLM functionality to third party suppliers can be challenging, especially if they are based in developing countries where professional development and IT infrastructure for access to the cloud is limited.

Supplier integration

Kim Fleming, business development manager for South Africa and US-based iSyncSolutions, says the biggest bottleneck her clients experienced was the reliability of the internet in manufacturing locations.

"China is not too bad but Indonesia historically has been poor in terms of internet and this has been a factor [with integration to a company's PLM]," she says. Fleming adds that when these concerns were overcome – in some cases by companies installing their own infrastructure – critical path management was a particularly popular feature of their product when clients needed to integrate their third party suppliers.

"A line manager can log on in the manufacturing location and see what they have to do that day for production to be on schedule and see what is dependent on the completion of those jobs, and that kind of visibility is very valuable," she added. Fleming says that although out-of-the-box solutions could be practical for some operations, reports often had to be customised to give executives the top line information they needed. 

"Dashboards are what people want. They can see what sales reps are selling everyday through mobile apps...what they want are reports that give them graphs and full integration with customer data management," she says. 

Incorporating data from an ever-larger number of partners in the supply chain can provide insights for decision making.

Bedouet says the extent of supplier collaboration depends heavily on the business model employed by brands.

"For example, fast-fashion houses often function on the basis of pull value chains where production is planned according to the point-of-sales data from stores. In this context, suppliers need to work very closely with retailers and be integrated into PLM platforms right from the beginning of the production process to facilitate real-time information sharing," she says.

Click on the following links to read related articles:

Utilising PLM to fuel growth and fulfil demand

Tools to help choose an apparel PLM vendor

Timelines to plan for a successful PLM project