Similar to trends in product lifecycle management (PLM) systems, developments in enterprise resource planning (ERP) for the apparel industry are currently focused on smaller changes improving specific functions.

Developers of ERP are also expanding the analytical capabilities to allow users to better understand how their systems are performing.

"It tends to be little subtle nuances that make one system slightly more appropriate for a customer’s business than another system," says Tony Parkinson, managing director of UK-based Option Systems Ltd. The company offers the StyleMan ERP system, designed specifically for clothing and footwear manufacturers.

"A lot of our customers are in the wholesale business. So the main thing they do more than anything else is putting in sales orders, and they’ll look for a minimum key stroke ease of being able to get from looking at a product’s availability, to checking its picture, and eventually getting the numbers in," says Parkinson.

As well, the company is improving its warehouse management system based on its customers’ changing needs. Since many customers are conducting e-commerce and selling directly to consumers, by-passing the retail outlets they have used in the past, companies are now shipping out products in fewer numbers per order. This means that warehouses, which traditionally stocked similar styles of all colours and sizes together, now keep fast-moving colours and sizes together regardless of size for more efficient packing and filling of orders.

StyleMan allows users to keep track of where products are kept and plan the fastest route through the warehouse to fill orders. It also involves ‘matrix picking,’ which allows it to pick routes to fill around 20 orders at the same time rather than processing 20 individual routes.

Apparel companies are also looking for greater integration in their ERPs, linking information between different sources. For instance, users of StyleMan can easily import outside data into the system, such as exporting data to a Microsoft Excel sheet, amending it, and importing it into the ERP.

Integration of key areas

Likewise, Giuseppe Ghisoni, Italy-based Porini International's channel manager, notes integration of areas such as accounting, cost control, and supply chain management is a key trend for apparel ERP.

"If you have different systems [that do these tasks], you have to have a certain system to consolidate data from another system. If you have a single ERP where you have everything, it’s much more simplified and more accurate," he says.

Using the ERP via mobile devices and the ‘cloud’ are also key demands from some users, he adds.

He notes the company issues updates every two to three months for its Apparel and Textile for Microsoft Dynamics AX platform and is currently working on new upgrades.

One of the most recent improvements involved features to automate the process of issuing and receiving documents related to managing subcontractors. This can be particularly challenging for apparel companies to keep track of manually if they have multiple suppliers with semi-finished goods moving around during the production process.

Parkinson adds ERP developers are increasingly focused on providing companies with business intelligence and analysis based on ERP data. This includes information on the sales performance of different types of products and the company’s buying trends.

Other technology links

Other ERP providers, such as US-based AIMS 360, are incorporating other useful technologies. In June, this company announced its customers can incorporate fashion radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and labels into their systems to better track products. It is working with US-based Progressive Label, a tag and price ticket maker, to enable apparel manufacturers and wholesalers to use their ERP-generated universal product code (UPC) numbers to generate an electronic product code (EPC), which is then embedded into a RFID tag or label.

Meanwhile, Utsav Arora, a senior research analyst at IDC Canada's enterprise applications and services practice, notes ERP systems around the world - including for the apparel industry - are focusing on improving human resources analytics. Logging information such as the reason an employee leaves the company can help firms better understand what their workforce is thinking and how to encourage greater productivity.

"It’s a hot area in the ERP market. We’re at that phase where adoption has just started and…over the next three to five years there’s going to be a lot of traction in this market," he says.

Advances in ERP, such as offering cloud-based systems, are also making modern ERP systems more affordable, especially for smaller companies, he adds.

"With old legacy systems, it used to require a lot of time, some IT skills, and money to maintain it…but we’re at the point now where agile ERP tools are available to a wide spectrum of the market for businesses of all sizes and budgets."

Arora says companies in the United States tend to be first to adopt new features and developments in ERP, followed by those in the Asia-Pacific region. European and Canadian companies, for instance, then tend to catch up.

As the ERP offerings for companies increase, Arora notes it can be challenging to know which system to choose. While companies can benefit from the wide variety of vendors and competition driving innovation, he recommends that companies looking for a new ERP system "take a step back," identify their business challenges, and decide what aspects of their business they want to improve.

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