Product lifecycle management (PLM) systems provide increasingly sophisticated tools for getting the right products to market at the right time - with current trends including more integration with ERP, and collaborative sharing in the development process.

Giuseppe Ghisoni, channel manager for Italy-based software developer, Porini, told just-style that PLM functionality has increased significantly over recent years. "It will never replace ERP as a system, but PLM today has many more functions and indeed the overlap between ERP and PLM systems is wider than ever," he says.

Jean-Marc Galea, PLM worldwide marketing manager for France-based Lectra, agrees that convergence between the two is increasing. "Our customers are seeking more integration between PLM and ERP, as well as more solutions to control time and costs," he says.

More seamless, intuitive interfaces are becoming the norm. PLM solutions such as those produced by France-based Dassault Systèmes and Lectra, and UK-based DeSL, for example, have expanded their PLM functionality to include a deeper integration with Adobe Illustrator.

Susan Olivier, vice president of consumer goods & retail industry solutions for Dassault Systèmes, explains that designers can now associate elements present in the PLM system such as materials, colours, trims, washes, prints and labels with the product colourway sketch in Adobe using 'artboards' and layers. They then save that data directly into a product, product colourway, product brief or product placeholder in the PLM system.

"It really gives the designer a quicker and more intuitive way to work," she says.

Mobile applications
This seamless experience also extends to mobile applications, which now abound for PLM suites. US-based Gerber's YuniquePLM suite, for example, can be accessed from standard mobile devices such as phones or tablets, while US-based Centric Software, boasting clients including Canada's DSquared2, French footwear designer Christian Louboutin and Italy's Colmar, has developed a series of mobile applications, or 'apps', as part of its PLM package.

There is a 'Capture It' app that can directly load photos into the Centric 8 PLM system, a material sample app that can likewise load material photographs and notes into a sample library, and even a factory audit app that allows onsite factory audits and compliance auditing through any iOS (Apple) mobile device.

In addition, thanks to advances in onscreen fabric and drape rendering, 3D product development has made a massive leap in quality. Integrated 3D capabilities are changing the way apparel companies do business, according to Olivier.

"I'm not suggesting that 3D prototyping should replace physical samples altogether, but if a designer can look at five or 15 options in a day, they can then request physical samples of the one or two they like the best and be far more satisfied with the result. And fewer physical samples in the pipeline means faster turnaround times, which shortens cycle times from concept to creation," she says.

As with ERP systems, cloud-based or hybrid on-premises/cloud PLM is an increasingly attractive option for companies looking to reduce the 'total cost of ownership' (TCO), yet this should be a carefully considered process, according to analysts.

'Backward compatibility'
Transforming digital infrastructure is by no means simple and, apart from a careful examination of the financial benefits or disadvantages, companies also need to take into account the archival importance of legacy systems, according to Joe Barkai, business process strategist and former research vice president of PLM market research analyst IDC.

As he pointed out in a blog post on the subject, it is not only 'backward compatibility' - or the use of old data in the new system - that can be a problem. There are also legal obligations for data retention, such as the necessity to keep product development information for up to ten years in some cases.

Legal requirements can also oblige companies to provide data in a format that is readable, which is an important consideration given the rapid evolution of digital archival formats.

Collaborative sharing
Another important trend is collaborative sharing in the development process, and social media-like applications have become an important aspect of many PLM products as a result.

This not only includes tools used for social media mining, aggregating 'likes' on Facebook or trawling hashtags on Twitter, but also the sharing of development progress and information among designers and production managers and even sales teams.

Dassault, for example, introduced a social innovation application as part of its PLM suite called 3DSwym ('see what you mean') as long ago as 2010, while US-based PLM system provider PTC's Windchill announced the introduction of its SocialLink module the same year. It provides a platform that allows participants to interact on the one product as if they were in the same room.

Meanwhile, US-based Infor's apparel solution even provides an aggregating tool called Ming.le that organises information into logical streams and conversations; while the workspace has been designed to simplify complex production management into an interface that reflects Web2.0 logic, complete with alerts and topic followers.

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