A Two-layer Model for Fashion PLM Functionality

  • Written By: Yu Chen
  • Published: October 5 2009

The past few years have seen the fashion industry show a significantly increasing passion for product lifecycle management (PLM) methodology. Generally speaking, a fashion PLM solution is a tailored PLM solution (compared with the general or comprehensive PLM) with extra functionality that serves the specificities of this industry in order to help the manufacturers and retailers of fashion goods (including apparel, footwear, accessories, etc.) to achieve more efficient product development, reduced costs, and better collaboration and control throughout the entire supply chain.

On the vendor side, established PLM players are expanding their solutions for the fashion industry; and experienced enterprise software providers in the fashion vertical are enhancing their PLM capabilities, resulting in a mushrooming of fashion PLM solutions in the market. On the user side, the adoption rate keeps growing. However, the question of how fashion companies can benefit from PLM in an optimal way remains unanswered. This question lies in many areas ranging from strategic planning, to solution selection, to system implementation, and to post-implementation operations. No doubt, many fashion players need more time to better understand what PLM is as a management methodology—and what PLM can do in terms of functionality before they can more confidently jump on the PLM bandwagon.

When we talk about PLM methodology in the context of the fashion business, recognizing the specificities of the fashion industry is as important as understanding what PLM is in the generic setting—if not more important. I have learned from a vendor that it originally used its "traditional" PLM solution (for industries such as automotive and aerospace) for the fashion industry, hoping it would perform well after some modifications. The results were not so successful until the vendor thoroughly rebuilt the solution for its fashion customers. To my understanding, a fashion PLM solution won't be a success unless the “fashion” part has been well taken care of.

The Specificities of the Fashion Industry

What makes the fashion industry so different when it comes to applying the PLM methodology? A look at the product features of fashion goods and the business processes of the fashion industry may help answer the question.

Product features

In the past, PLM used to deal with products with complicated structure and configurations. However, this is not the case in the fashion industry, where product structure is quite simple and flat. For many fashion companies, although the structure of each individual product is not complicated, product variety is the pain point in management—for each season, there may be different product lines, multiple styles under each line, and color and size variations for each style. In other words, the structure of the product line may be complicated, resulting in the need for tremendous efforts to manage the integrity of product line information.

In addition, fashion products change constantly from one season to another (or even within the same season) under a rigid time frame. Fashion goods now have a very short cycle time—sometimes just a few weeks from the time the designer has an idea to the time the product hits the street.

Business processes

The fashion business has established its own conventions for the product development process. From trend research to the physical item on the shelf, a fashion product may go through different stages in the form of storyboards, sketches, patterns, prototype, multiple types of samples, and so on. Within these process conventions, there are a lot of informalities. Fashion players do need to maintain the accuracy of their product data, but they are also fighting with large product quantities and short cycle times (as mentioned previously). Thus, the full process for tracking engineering changes is highly necessary for making a change to an automobile in development, but it is too lengthy for modifying a design detail of a jacket.

Today, many fashion companies rely on offshore production. While benefitting from low labor costs, they have to face drawbacks in areas such as on-time delivery, quality control, and collaboration between product development and production due to an elongated value chain. To address these issues, fashion players have to streamline the supply chain by working closely with suppliers using accurate and timely product data.

Challenges for a Fashion PLM Solution

The following are a few challenges that a fashion PLM solution has to address in order to be successful.

  1. Being secure enough to hold product definition information, but efficient and flexible enough to handle the sheer volume and variety of product and the fast pace of fashion business processes.

  2. Being well tuned to fashion business processes and user habits—fashion designers are not engineers.

  3. Although a traditional PLM system doesn't necessarily include sourcing functionality, it has become a critical capability for fashion PLM.

  4. The wide managerial span of a fashion PLM system requires effective integration between PLM and other systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and supply chain management (SCM).

A two-layer Model for Fashion PLM Functionality

Above analysis mainly suggests that a successful fashion PLM solution should be able to bring all the benefits that the PLM methodology has to offer, and all the functionalities that specifically support the unique needs of the fashion business. Following this idea, we can separate fashion PLM functionality into two major categories: process-specific and non-process-specific.

The difference between the two is relatively clear. Process-specific functionality simulates fashion business processes and provides specific capabilities and interfaces to support each task or job function (such as line planning, design, sourcing, etc). Non-process-specific functionality is more generic and cross-functional, and often plays a supporting role. Examples for the second category include data vaulting, classification, workflow, etc. In other words, non-process-specific functionality is that running behind the scenes or in common amongst different job functions in order to maintain data integrity, increase productivity, and facilitate collaboration. For instance, a fashion designer may be tasked with modifying a design detail, retrieving the current design information, performing the modification, and then sending the change to his/her manager for approval mainly through the process-specific functionality called “design management.” However, without the support from non-process-specific functionality (e.g., routing, searching, checking documents in/out), “design management” can't sustain itself.

The reason for separating fashion PLM functionality into two categories is to help fashion companies obtain a clearer vision of what a fashion PLM solution should contain when planning for PLM adoption. Due to the fact that the introduction of PLM into the fashion industry is quite recent and fashion players are usually not engineering-oriented, planning a PLM system both business-process-wise and PLM-infrastructure-wise will help reduce confusion in the planning and solution selection phases (see figure 1).

Figure 1. A two-layer functionality model for fashion PLM.

The Business Process Layer

To minimize customization in PLM implementation, many fashion PLM solutions provide out-of-the-box functionalities that support fashion business processes. These functionalities usually simulate processes from the perspective of job function (or product development stage).

  • Line Planning. The life cycle of fashion goods starts at the planning stage. At this stage, line planners should be able to access historical planning and sales data to improve the accuracy of line planning. In addition, product planners and other managers also need a tool to define product development and delivery timelines, and track the status of each stage of the product life cycle.

  • Concept Development. Concept development involves capturing and evaluating product requirements and fashion trends, managing product ideas, and creating digitized storyboards for internal and field communication.

  • Design and Product Development. Design and product development involves managing activities related to design and technical development including design process management, material development management, color and print management, prototyping and sampling, specification, product releasing, and product cost estimation.

  • Sourcing and Supply Chain Collaboration. Functionality for these activities enables the optimized placement of decisions, as well as profitable and stable supplier relationships by increasing transparency throughout the supply chain.

  • Manufacturing Process Management (MPM). MPM addresses the processes associated with manufacturing engineering (or digital process design), including the design, documentation, validation, management, and communication of production processes to both internal and external entities. This functionality may be needed for those fashion companies that continue to do production in-house.

  • Product Quality Management. Product quality management ensures that the life cycle activities of a product are effective and efficient with respect to continuous product quality improvement. The difference between this functionality and quality management in an ERP system is that the latter is used more to control current production quality, whereas in PLM it is more about capturing and routing quality data for future improvement.

  • Visual Merchandising. Visual merchandising is the activity of presenting and promoting goods in retail outlets. The management of visual merchandising design, planning, and scheduling increases the efficiency and timeliness of the visual presentation.

The Supporting PLM Technology Layer

Managing the entire product life cycle requires general PLM technologies in order to maintain the integrity of product definition information, and to facilitate collaboration among different parties and across different product life cycle stages.

  • Product Data Vaulting and Management. Goals for this functionality are to ensure that product data is effectively and efficiently captured, stored, protected, and version controlled in a way that allows the company to easily find and use appropriate product information.

  • Item Management and Classification/Library. Item management and classification comprise a sort of library where information on raw materials, intermediates and subassemblies, and finished goods is stored. This function facilitates the reuse of product information by managing and classifying existing items properly.

  • Product Change Management. Product change management is the mechanism by which changes to product designs are implemented in the subsequent processes. The key challenge for the fashion industry is to conveniently integrate product changes across the internal organization and throughout the entire value chain, such that revisions to products are communicated and deployed effectively and efficiently.

  • Workflow and Business Process Management. This functionality contains modeling and execution of business processes, including defining and documenting the processes by which business will be conducted (typically by role) and then managing and executing the defined business processes.

  • Project Management. Project management (mainly used in new product development) supports project definition, work breakdown structure (WBS), task and resource management, and project execution.

  • Design and Development Collaboration. Design collaboration allows multiple people with different perspectives to provide input into the design process. By including people involved with upstream and downstream processes (such as suppliers or customers), products that are more appropriate for the market can be introduced and many potential problems can be avoided through advanced visibility.

  • Visualization, Markup, and Translation of Product Data. Visualization, markup, and translation tools unlock the product data that is typically stored in proprietary data formats, allowing the data to be shared with others without the original authoring tools.

  • Regulatory and Compliance. This covers the requirements for ensuring that products and their associated materials comply with both external and internal rules and regulations. They may cover regulatory requirement needs, as well as product-related components of environmental health and safety (EH&S).

  • Product Information Management. Also called master data management (MDM) for product data, product information management provides a common, central repository for product information.

  • Portfolio Management. This adds discipline and structure to the process of determining which products and product innovations should be pursued. Portfolios of existing products, as well as product innovation investments, can be rated and prioritized based on various decision criteria.

  • Integration. This refers to the system's ability to interact with document-based design information and other enterprise management systems, such as ERP and SCM.

Final Note

Based on this two-layer structure of functionality, Technology Evaluation Centers (TEC) has built an evaluation model for fashion PLM solutions. With over 1,600 criteria organized in a structured manner, this evaluation model can be used either on a strategic level to help fashion companies better envision their PLM systems, or during the software selection process to compare, line by line, vendors' capabilities with user organizations' specific requirements.

Although the entire spectrum of fashion PLM functionality has here been structured in two layers, one should be aware that some functionality is actually cross-layer. For instance, the regulatory and compliance module can both contain specific business processes aimed at meeting compliance requirements and be embedded in other processes in a supporting role for compliance purposes. That being said, the two layers are not sharply separated. Companies will need to use their own judgment in modeling their fashion PLM functional requirements based on their own process features and business requirements.

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