Three years ago, just when Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software was beginning to generate a buzz as a tool to simplify and inject efficiency into apparel supply chains, some complained the systems faced "horrible" implementation delays as companies and software developers alike struggled to integrate them into organisations.

Those delays and other technological loopholes have now lessened significantly, software suppliers say, adding that PLM has now become a "necessity" rather than an option to help garment makers gain competitive strength in the cut-throat global fashion market.

"I disagree that there were "horrific" delays, says Kathleen Mitford, SVP market strategy at PLM software maker PTC about the criticism surrounding the systems.

"This may have been true five years ago when PLM systems were highly customised and enterprise PLM solution providers lacked industry specific domain skills."

But, she adds: "PLM solutions have matured to allow customers to use the system out of the box, which significantly reduces implementation timelines."

When asked about other observers´ view that the systems are still facing high resistance from users unwilling to adopt to new technologies and system automisation that doesn't match the work that needs to be done to add value, she says: "If that were true, the PLM market for apparel wouldn't be growing at the rate is. "

"Companies that decide to invest in PLM don't need to be convinced that it is a good investment. Instead, these companies realise that in order to maintain competitive advantage PLM is a necessity."

Focus on improvements
Susan Olivier, industry define leader of retail solutions at French "3D" PLM supplier Dassault Systèmes, also defends claims that global apparel firms dropped investment during the recession.

While she admits some rivals may have suffered a decline, it wasn´t as steep as some claimed since many companies took advantage of slow business to make technologically-enabled enterprise improvements.

"Our business grew 70+% year-over-year from 2009 to 2010 and we expect to see continued success and growth in this industry," Olivier enthuses. "It is hard to predict the exact percentage growth, but I would expect to see 50% for the next year with a decline each year, levelling off to around 30% by 2014."

In common with other observers, Olivier expects market growth in Europe and Asia, the addition of new PLM users across the value and supply chain to support strategic initiatives, and the adoption of PLM to support quality and compliance initiatives will continue to bolster the industry´s fortunes.

"Measure twice, cut once"
According to Olivier, much of the criticism surrounding user resistance to PLM stems from companies' inability to clearly identify where their organisation is and what it wants to achieve from PLM.

"There is an old saying in fashion: "measure twice, cut once". The same concept applies to PLM," Olivier notes. "Many companies expect they can use a system´s implementation project to also drive radical process change, but they frequently don't take the measure of where their organisation is "today" and engage real hands-on users to define how to make the system "fit" with where they want to be in the future."

She continues: "The result is a massive user resistance to change - which they blame on the system, which is safer than criticising their management - combined with system behaviour which frequently automates what people "say" they do, or want to do, but which doesn't match the work that needs to get done to deliver business value.

"This leads to a lot of rework, delay and frustration."

To meet this, challenge, Dassault has come up with a strategy called BVA or Business Value Assessment. BVA is a methodology and analysis toolset that quantifies what individuals and teams do currently (how much time is spent, how many specs per associate, costs of materials, etc) - and then aligns what the business wants to achieve with the PLM.

It also quantifies the potential time and cost savings from those changes. BVA also identifies a logical sequence for applying those changes to maximise ROI and minimise the change impact on the associates doing the work.

According to Olivier, Dassault offers an  80% 'out-of-the box solution' based on industry 'best practices'. The other 20% of the solution involves configuration services tailored to a companies´ unique business processes and integration requirements.

"Our solution is built with a philosophy of anticipating change and allowing business users to configure it without requiring a computer programmer to design a new screen or make seemingly simple changes," Olivier adds.

Speed is money
Dassault´s solution is also flexible enough to allow clothiers to enter new fashion categories and broaden their assortment options.

Olivier boasts Dassault´s technology supports change at the client´s business speed. And in fashion, speed is money.

Olivier says Dassault is constantly working to satisfy customers´ growing demands in this regard.

"The number one pressure we hear from our customers revolves around speed," she says. "And PLM is probably the most critical tool enabling speed in the fashion industry - regardless of a company's size or the products they make.

"Whether that's speed to market, speed of response to new customer demand, speed of decision-making or even speed of tracking status....speed is important."

But without knowing which products to bring to market and at what volumes, speed is useless.

Not all products require a fast-fashion timeline, for example. Dassault has provided clients with solutions that allow them to not only improve speed but also define where speed is a priority and where it is not, enabling the "most efficient" management of the supply development process.

This PLM "intelligence" is what has made the software so popular, persuading organisations clinging to ERP systems to shift into PLM to become more agile enterprises.

By using PLM, clothiers can reduce their time-to-market, improving their ability to identify fashion and sales trends through customer purchasing feedback tools. This in turn gives fashion retailers time to develop products, test and chase their collection´s "winners", making more of what consumers will pay for, boosting sales and reducing markdown losses.

At the same time, "fewer samples can represent hundreds of thousands of dollars of savings," adds one industry observer.

"These are the underappreciated elements of PLM's value proposition that CIOs should more closely consider when setting their technology agendas."