Apparel and textile companies must consider a variety of complex factors when looking to switch suppliers, especially to a new manufacturer. But software specifically geared towards the sector can help companies track these changes, anticipate issues, and integrate new suppliers within the supply chain.

Texas-based Epicor Software Corporation's product lifecycle management (PLM) solution allows brands to centralise their processes and map their entire supply chain, including sourcing.

Within the system, companies can track materials and costs as well as simulate 'what if' scenarios by seeing how certain changes would affect production. For instance, this could include changing duties on materials or switching source countries, says Diane Neaven, Epicor's spokesperson and director of product marketing.

The system also allows companies to track suppliers' performance, which could help them make decisions on whether or not to change suppliers. Neaven notes companies can customise alerts to automatically flag potential production issues. "If you're dealing with new suppliers, there's risk that they may not be as reliable as previous suppliers, [and] they may not hit delivery dates," she says.

Companies must also consider that switching sourcing countries could mean a whole new set of production requirements, which Epicor's solution can also track - including country restrictions such as banned materials and chemicals, or restrictions on their use.

Epicor is planning to launch a mobile inspection application this summer that could help companies decide whether to switch suppliers, which would allow inspectors to upload information in real time via a tablet.

Companies can define their quality standards for inspectors who can take pictures, record voice notes, and upload information directly on-site to inform the company whether shipments will be on time, for instance. It has been designed for Apple devices initially, spurred by customer demand.

Clear communication
Jatin Paul, CEO of global software provider WFX (World Fashion Exchange), which has an India R&D centre and offices across the US, Europe, and south Asia, notes that it takes time for companies and new suppliers to develop the ideal working relationship and business processes.

"Clear communication is one of the most important aspects...a new vendor needs to understand exactly what you expect, your process and the product that needs to be developed," he adds.

Software can help, such as WFX's vendor portal within its cloud-based Web PLM system that puts suppliers and companies on the same communication platform. Suppliers log in through a portal and the system "creates a certain method and a predetermined way of working where it enhances the communication and transparency, which is more effective than sending emails and spreadsheets," says Paul.

Companies can send suppliers technical packages - which detail exactly how a garment should be constructed - through this system and confirm suppliers have received the information. It also helps companies better manage timelines because both suppliers and the company are working from the same, updated source of information and both parties know where they are in terms of meeting targets.

The system can also speed up communication across time zones; for instance, suppliers in China could access information on the system at all times rather than having to wait half a day for confirmation from their partners at an apparel company in North America.

Paul adds that another key and growing concern for brands is ensuring suppliers are compliant with their standards (product quality, social, and environmental), especially with new suppliers.

"Compliance is becoming a bigger and bigger issue...[companies] need to make sure they [suppliers] conform to the standards that [companies have] defined in order to have an ethically-based sourcing partner," he says, pointing to Bangladesh's factory safety problems.

Organised supplier information
Likewise, France-based Dassault Systèmes' solutions help companies - especially complex, multi-brand ones - record and organise supplier information, says Susan Olivier, vice president of consumer goods and retail industry solutions.

"You need to know what's their capacity, what's their capability, and what's their ability to execute that properly," she adds.

Dassault's system tracks a supplier's audit and inspection history, which can help companies decide whether or not to use them. Also, since some brands within a company might use the same factory, compliance information is shared among these brands so that they are all notified if there are compliance issues with a supplier.

Analysing sourcing shifts
Meanwhile, Georgia, US-based Logility, in March announced the release of the latest updated version of its Voyager Solutions V8.5, says Karin Bursa, the company's vice president. The system can analyse the effects of shifting sourcing, including the overall cost of the shift, helping companies decide if they should change suppliers.

Companies can request software as a cloud service or host it themselves. The software can help forecast demand for products, which informs sourcing decisions.

"You can anticipate the market to buy; translated into supply plans, [this means] based on this forecast, how much product do I need to order and where do I need product?" she notes. Logility's customers include Under Armour, Spanx, American Apparel, and Ralph Lauren.

Mapping supply chains
In addition, Montana-based TexBase offers a system that can map supply chains down to different components in apparel manufacturing. This includes the materials' country of origin and whether they meet testing requirements and quality standards.

"For each material or component that they use within particular items, if there's a disruption of a labour issue or a factory issue...they can look across that material set...and easily identify which suppliers they can redirect sourcing to," says Ron McMurtry, TexBase spokesperson.

The system is offered as a software as a cloud service, and can be integrated into companies' PLM and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems as a plug-in.? McMurtry adds that TexBase is planning to launch a new tool in the system this summer to help companies visualise their data. In addition to presenting suppliers listed in a hierarchy, companies will be able to represent their suppliers geographically.

TexBase customers include apparel brands and retailers, such as Patagonia and Spanx, with the majority of the brands based in North America and with supply chains in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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