After weathering the storm of recession, today's apparel companies now face a significantly more challenging and competitive market. Technologies they would be wise to watch in the year ahead include lead time optimisation, business intelligence, cloud computing and 3D tools.

Bob McKee, industry strategy director for fashion, Lawson Software
McKeeThe fashion industry has shown every indication of not understanding the fundamental changes that are going on. Many think they will focus on carrying so little inventory that the consumer has no choice but to take something they actually have in their shop - a sort of 'take it or leave it' approach to merchandising. Either you buy it now, or it will be gone. Most consumers are saying "fine, I'll just look elsewhere - as I can look in several competing shops, or I can look on the Internet, or I can look in a catalogue. I have lots and lots of choices and I don't care where I find it: if it's not from you, someone else will have it or something close enough that I won't care if it's not exactly the same."

When you look at the lists of survey data coming from the industry, the top three items are no different than they've been for the past couple decades. The top one is usually: "Lower unit cost to make better margins and to cover for markdowns".

When is the industry going to wake up and realise that beating up those further upstream in the supply chain for lower and lower prices is not a sustainable way forward? How about reducing or eliminating the reasons for the markdowns or figuring out the formula for 'test and replenish' so that you can eliminate the need to carry the excess inventory that has to be marked down?

It all comes from a focus on the 'business of the industry,' focusing on the basics and doing the basics well. This requires up-to-date data and the analysis of this data.

What's hot in terms of technology? We believe that cloud computing, which offers the option to access software on a subscription basis, elasticity in computing power and more hassle-free ownership through managed support, will gain increasing attention in 2011.

Susan Olivier, director of retail, footwear and apparel market development, Dassault Systèmes Enovia

Susan OlivierIn the same way that global supply chain managers want increased visibility to what's upstream from their design and development partners, development teams benefit from increased visibility to the evolving merchant assortment. And everyone benefits from being able to collaborate, and execute, faster.

Another way to support this is to virtualise and visualise before you actualise. 2011 is quickly emerging as the year when industry is ready to adopt practical and cost-effective applications for 3D technologies. Many fashion brands and retailers are evaluating these technologies, and leading companies are already implementing them.

This includes 3D visualisation for samples, eliminating multiple, time-consuming physical iterations to achieve the design vision. Let the designer model what he or she has in mind before making a physical sample. That's eco-friendly too!

What's more, once you have a 3D image of the product you can use it in multiple value-added ways. 3D virtual test-marketing allows companies to get direct consumer feedback before committing to production. 3D virtualisation of both product and store environments allows you to model inventory levels, product placement and traffic flow. And combined with 3D virtual reality you can validate space allocation, adjacencies and customer response using virtual walkthroughs in an immersive experience.

So this is a really exciting approach to addressing speed-to-market, cost and time efficiencies, voice of the customer through direct feedback, while being environmentally friendly, combining the power of collaboration in PLM and 3D visualisation.

Philippe Ribera, group software marketing director, Lectra
Philippe RiberaWhile the issues of cost and margin will surely dominate the industry's agenda in 2011, one of the major factors of success will be to capture as much as possible of the shrinking cake, obviously at the expense of competitors. It is clearly no use dramatically cutting costs, surmounting regulatory issues and getting product into store if no-one is buying it.

We believe that product innovation and quality will ultimately determine who succeeds in 2011 and who does not. This, in turn, will lead back to the design teams and their ability to turn out a substantial variety of products that are on trend and correctly aimed at their intended consumer target.

Once more, technology will be a likely catalyst for a successful collection. Handling colour palettes accurately, designing virtual fabrics, either woven, knitted or printed will enable the elimination of the lesser designs virtually, leaving the design and development teams to spend more quality time on fewer and better designs.

It is no accident that those companies currently prospering in this difficult climate have equipped themselves with this technology. They can be recognised simply by comparing their collections.

Mark Burstein, president of sales, marketing and R&D, NGC Software
Mark BursteinLead time optimisation is a red-hot topic. The apparel industry is focused on shortening the distance from concept to consumer, because consumers are fickle and trends are changing faster than ever, fuelled by social media and instant access to information.

Lead time optimisation involves streamlining the way that companies manage the design/production process and share information across different groups, from merchandising to product development, sourcing and production. Companies must focus on saving time at every step, quickly determining which orders to place, executing their raw materials requirements, determining which of their factories can produce more quickly. All of this centres around information access, planning, collaboration and visibility - and these are the core strengths of PLM.

PLM helps companies improve speed to market through lead time optimisation, enabling apparel companies to increase profitability, improve customer satisfaction, and reduce costs. This also reinforces brand leadership and drives growth: if apparel companies are trend-right and delivering the products that consumers want the most, their business will explode.

Charles Benoualid, vice president, research and development, Visual 2000 International
We see Business Intelligence as a very important business tool for every company. This softwarBenoualide can provide access and visibility to information from all across the business to drive a better understanding of how the company is performing at the consumer level. It can help companies better understand their consumers and make product decisions based more on fact than intuition. These systems make consumers more predictable and help fashion companies focus on products that sell. Business Intelligence can also help fashion companies understand how to increase inventory turns to drive greater profits and generate consumer demand.

Andy Lynn, vice president business development, RLM Apparel Software Andy LynnMany fashion brands and wholesalers are moving fast to establish an online, direct to consumer sales channel. Companies that have made this leap realise quickly that website development is only one of several important requirements for success. Many are not prepared for the effort and costs associated with processing and delivering single-item orders, managing significant amounts of returns, maintaining accurate and appropriate inventory levels, and other activities required to ensure customer satisfaction and sustainable success.

To be efficient and effective, e-commerce solutions must be integrated with the back office business system. Once again, technology brings automation and control to what can be a very challenging and difficult to master process.

Paul Magel, president, Applications Solutions Group, CGS
After weathering the storm of recession, today's companies face a significantly more challenging and competitive market than we had just a few years ago. As consolidation continues across the industry, many companies are rethinking their role in the supply chain. Perhaps most notably, brands and manufacturers are embracing the direct-to-consumer model to stay on top of consumer demand, position their brands, and bolster profits.

We are working with a number of well-financed companies backed by major venture capital firms that are entering this space. But this business model brings significant operational and distribution challenges associated with producing and delivering single items; rather than the traditional cartons or pallets. While the opportunities are great, success in this arena mandates the use of technology to effectively plan, develop, produce, and deliver.

Chris Groves, president and CEO, Centric Software
GrovesAssuring quality, especially in light of the changing manufacturing scene, will be a top issue for the industry in 2011.

Compliance management will also continue to be a major issue. In particular are the US Customs & Border Protection's Importer Security Filing and Additional Carrier Requirements ('10+2') and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT), the joint effort between the US government and businesses involved in importing goods into the United States. Without appropriate compliance and certification, companies with offshore manufacturing operations could find their shipments slowed or even cut off.