The last few years have seen tremendous changes in the technological landscape of 'product lifecycle management' (PLM) and 'enterprise resource planning' (ERP) systems.

Mobile computing has moved from being a novelty to an integrated business process. Companies are faced with evolving manufacturing scenarios that include accelerated times to market, shifting sourcing and compliance requirements, plus increasing 3D virtual prototyping and consumer-centric design processes.

PLM and ERP systems have evolved rapidly to cater to these changes, and universal themes have emerged that are likely to dominate development in the near future.

The first is the need to not only consolidate the business advantages the software has introduced, but to leverage them even further. According to Susan Olivier, vice-president of consumer goods & retail industry solutions at France-based Dassault Systèmes, PLM systems will be increasingly used in order to guarantee the largest gains possible across the board.

"The focus is increasingly on extending the product innovation platform by supporting social collaboration, iterative design, shorter cycle times and robust supplier collaboration in design-for-cost and strategic sourcing," she says.

These include questions about how companies leverage consumer insights in addition to sales results; how they support iterative innovation; and how they connect global teams on a ‘single version of the truth' that is increasingly visual and virtual, she adds.

Adding value
Channel manager Giuseppe Ghisoni, of Italy-based software developer Porini, says PLM and ERP systems can also leverage added value in the retail segment of the industry.

"Fashion retail is a huge growth area; there is a lot of interest from clients in fashion retail who want better control over how they manage their products. Multi-channel has been a huge development here and it's important for a retailer that the system is aimed at client sales and integrating that with the supply chain in the most seamless way," he says.

As social media cements its position as a new 'modus operandi' of human interaction, more social exchange features are likely to emerge that not only allow design teams to easily communicate, but also to aggregate customer feedback into useful information within the software package itself.

Data mining on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter is now common, and the development of virtual sampling and increased attention on pre-manufacturing customer feedback to discover what is more likely to sell could spark significant developments.

The idea that PLM software should not be reinventing the wheel, but making existing processes easier, can be clearly seen in the increasing interoperability between established platforms.

Adobe Illustrator for example has now been integrated into all leading fashion and apparel PLM systems, and social media design has been gradually influencing the development of optional social collaboration modules for many PLM and ERP solutions.

Much as newspaper articles can be instantly shared on Facebook and Twitter, or photographs taken on a mobile phone can be uploaded to a variety of social media or programmes, working between look books, design tools, shared social media applications and nuts and bolts production information could see interfaces simplified even further.

This is especially the case as PLM and ERP expand their use on mobile devices, where screens are smaller and information must be easy to find on the go.

3D prototyping
The use of 3D prototyping, 3D catalogues and marketing and, eventually, 3D printing, also looks set to undergo significant development in coming years.

A plethora of 3D prototyping solutions from companies such as Browzwear and Lectra are becoming increasingly popular with apparel manufacturers and Olivier says that 3D prototyping, integrated with PLM systems, is already revolutionising work processes.

"3D models from virtual prototyping might be focused on the rendering of the materials and fits, and by applying a photo-realistic appearance on top of the products and on top of the 3D avatars, you have a result that's good enough to replace colour runs in salesmen's samples.

"That saves cost and time as well, and allows sales teams to show the whole range. With the range in 3D, they can now show different recommended groupings more completely and attractively," she explains.

While ERP and PLM continue to overlap in functionality, we are unlikely to see the combination of the two systems under one roof however, according to Jean-Marc Galea, Lectra's PLM worldwide marketing manager.

"ERP is managing transactional data while PLM manages creative data, so I don't think this [merging of systems] will happen, although more integration is needed between them on identified processes," he says.

Meanwhile, Galea cautions companies to carefully consider the potential risks of cloud-based solutions, saying that security for public clouds is still a concern. "Cloud computing depends on the perception the fashion companies have on the security aspects. Private cloud is seen as OK but many are still not sure they are comfortable to go to public cloud sharing," he says.

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