Apparel designers generally have relied more on art than science, but manufacturers increasingly are adopting the latter in the form of product life cycle management software that helps them speed the design process and reduce mistakes.
PLM, which grew out of the aerospace and manufacturing industries, is software that manages the process of product development, from devising the initial concept to gathering materials for sampling, testing and sending it off to be manufactured. It facilitates collaboration and communication between different departments, and can help a company produce more items or collections in a season with the same resources.
PLM builds on a related category of software, PDM, which preceded it. PDM manages the data associated with developing a product, such as testing and specifications, which might include a garment’s measurements, fabric, trims and construction details.
A handful of large companies such as Gap and Ellen Tracy began experimenting with PLM and PDM software about five years ago. Now, most large apparel makers use PLM or PDM software or are in the process of installing it.
A 2002 report from AMR Research in Boston noted that PDM software is well established, but that collaborative PLM software is still an immature category.
“PLM is a relatively new term that came about five years ago,” said Bruce Hudson, an independent supply chain analyst based in Naples, Fla.
The users contacted for this story agreed that PLM shows great promise, but isn’t yet mature.
The options available to the apparel industry include customizable PLM software from well-established companies that is not specific to the apparel industry, PDM programs that complement apparel manufacturing products from such companies as Gerber and Lectra and a newer class of stand-alone PLM applications developed specifically for apparel makers.
To give a few examples: Liz Claiborne uses software from Parametric Technology Corp., Jones is in the first stage of a three-part rollout with UGS Corp. and Tahari uses Business Management Systems’ VerTex.
Spyder Active Sports, a $95 million privately held maker of skiwear in Boulder, Colo., outgrew its homegrown system in FileMaker Pro and installed Lectra Gallery at the end of last year after evaluating a variety of PLM and PDM systems.
“We decided we needed a straight data management package,” said Kevin Smith, Spyder’s director of information technology. The company uses the application to create product specifications that it sends to its factories. This includes a bill of materials, size measurement specifications, images of the product and construction details. Now the data is available where anybody can see it. Before, if a manager needed to troubleshoot something, he or she would have to track down and speak to several people, each of whom would have to check FileMaker Pro, Excel and search through e-mails.
It’s too early to quantify the benefit of Gallery, but now “a team manager or product director at a glance can determine where we’re falling behind and take corrective action,” said Smith. “From that point of view, it will help us bring product to market sooner and help us meet customer delivery dates.”
At J. Jill of Quincy, Mass., the focus is on collaboration. The $435 million company, which operates 155 stores in addition to its catalogue and Web site, decided to install the Freeborders PLM suite to help its departments build consensus early on in the product development process, said Steve Pearson, J.Jill executive vice president for merchandising, product development and supply chain.
The company started a pilot in October and plans to complete the rollout by the end of this year. The software will bridge a gap between planning and specification development.
“It’s fair to say that, when we release the software, it will cover something like 90 percent of every task, and every data element we manage will be in the system,” Pearson said. “What I think everyone is looking for out there is something that can help the industry wrap its arms around the management of information that’s changing on a daily basis throughout the process, and tying it back through your ongoing plans. We were looking for something that interfaces between the planning process, which is very much a numbers-oriented world, and aligning those plans with the more tactile and visual aspects of developing the line and having a tool that brings the two together.”
The new system will let J. Jill review costing for an item against its financial plan to make sure it works and is affordable. The various departments will have visibility into how a piece looks and how it plays against the assortment plan. Merchants will have early (but restricted) involvement in design.
“What I’m trying to build here at J. Jill is a very open, collaborative process that creates as much early visibility and consensus planning as we can create,” said Pearson. “It will reduce back-end redundancies in adding, cropping and plugging holes that we might have missed in our assortment plan because design and development didn’t have a good road map.”
For example, the testing department will be able to test products earlier in the process, so if something fails, it won’t be too late to find a solution to the problem.
Next year, the company will be able to run reports on its process.
“I think efficiency can give you speed to market and a faster focus,” Pearson said. At the same time, he cautioned, “I don’t think anyone has proven it can really happen yet.”
J. Jill decided not to go with a more generic, customizable application because it’s difficult to get a large company to agree on implementation, Pearson said.
VF Corp. has taken a look at PLM software, but so far hasn’t found one mature enough for its purposes, said Jeff Streader, vice president of sourcing for VF Corp., Imagewear. In the meantime, the company is developing its own platform for product development. The application will let the company develop garment specifications, including measurements and packing instructions, and help it manage the process of prototype sampling, fit sampling, lab dips, and all the approvals that take place before production.
However, Streader said, PLM shows great promise.
“I think it is the greatest opportunity for the apparel industry in using technology as a business tool to focus on that collaborative preproduction space [that] people are calling PLM,” he said. “I think that’s our greatest opportunity to improve efficiencies in the supply chain.”
A sampling of PLM and PDM Programs:
- Business Management Systems
Founded in 1995, first PDM software developed on site for Ellen Tracy. PLM and PDM software manages business processes spanning design to delivery. A sampling of PLM and PDM Programs
Freeborders PLM Suite
A suite of applications that can be used together or individually. Storyboard, line optimizer, design, spec creation and review, fabric and trim management, sourcing, workflow, collaboration.
- Gerber Technology
Browser-based PDM software works with Gerber’s patternmaking and -cutting technology. Workflow, graphics, specifications, costing, sourcing.
Web-enabled PDM works with Lectra’s CAD/CAM and 3-D apparel applications. Workflow, spec development, review, costing, tracking.
- Parametric Technology Corp.
Windchill PDMLink, Windchill ProjectLink
Founded in 1985, it makes CAD/CAM, PDM, virtual team workspace for manufacturing companies. Distributes Aptavis’ PLM software for apparel makers, which runs on Windmill, and earlier this month announced plans to acquire Aptavis.
- UGS Corp.
Teamcenter, NX, Tecnomatix
Originally CAM for aerospace. Software spans planning, developing, production, service, process management, collaboration.
- Visual 2000
Visual 2000 DPMS
Enterprise management software and Web-based PDM for the apparel industry. Sales, purchasing, inventory, accounting, EDI.