Managing Trees versus Managing Grass

  • Written By: Yu Chen
  • Published: October 2 2009

Within the product lifecycle management (PLM) arena, there is a category of solutions with a very specific industry focus: fashion and retail PLM solutions. For example, Lectra calls its solution Fashion PLM; at PTC, its FlexPLM solution is created for retail, footwear, and apparel; TradeStone Software names  its solution Merchandise Lifecycle Management (MLM)  (instead of PLM) and focuses on helping retailers to design and develop private label merchandise. No matter how vendors describe their solutions, it seems certain that now PLM manages not only “trees” but also “grass.”

Here’s what I mean: A tree is much more complicated than a blade of grass in terms of its physical structure. Not only that, but a certain size of land surface accommodating ten trees is able to grow a thousand times the amount (if not more) of grass. This situation is similar to the difference between the industries (such as aerospace and automotive) in which the PLM methodology originated, and the industries (such as fashion and retail) in which the PLM methodology has received increasing attention during the past few years.

Product Structure: Complicated versus Simple

A tree has numerous branches and leaves. So do products such as airplanes, automobiles, and industrial equipment; its branches and leaves are called components and parts. Actually, managing a complicated product structure is one of the major reasons why people started to adopt product data management (PDM) systems—the predecessor of PLM. On the contrary, within the fashion and retail sectors, products are more like grass. Their structure is usually flat and simple.

Product Variety: Small versus Large

A tree requires many more resources (quantities of soil, space, sunlight, water, etc.) than a blade of grass does. It is also true that a complicated product requires more resources than a simple product. As a result, companies that produce “trees,”such as General Motors, may develop and manage only a handful of different products. But companies that produce “grass,” such as Spain-based apparel company Zara, may introduce up to 11,000 different styles in a single season.

Product Lifespan: Non-seasonal versus Seasonal

Trees are perennial, whereas many breeds of grass bud in spring and wither before the winter arrives. Following the same idea, car models have new versions every year, but the changes are usually incremental (in the way that trees are constantly growing, with subtle changes over time)—how different is the Jeep Liberty 2008 from the Jeep Liberty 2009? On the contrary, fashion products (except for those considered classic) are often driven by trends and seasonal cycles. At least twice a year, apparel companies have to build a new product assortment noticeably different from that of the previous year.

Having compared the above-three differences in product features, I hope it’s easier for you to understand why fashion or retail PLM solutions are different from “traditional” PLM (a term that is not precise—but you know what I’m referring to, right?). These differences partly explain why a “traditional” PLM may not work well for a fashion company.

Let me use change management as an example to further explain. In a typical engineering setting, product design changes have to follow restricted protocols and processes due to the complicated nature of the product structure. Generally speaking, the more complicated a product is, the more difficult it is to maintain the integrity of product definition information. In addition, other factors (such as safety measurement and regulatory requirements) add more complexity to the management of product definitions.

Within fashion and retail PLM systems, product structure is no longer a pain point, but the sheer volume and variety of products,  and the fast pace of the fashion and retail business present a challenge. When a designer changes the color of a fabric, it has to be implemented in all the consequent processes: the marketing department needs to change its collateral accordingly; new dyeing and coloring tests might be initiated; suppliers have to be informed; and so on—all in a prompt manner. When many fashion manufacturers and retailers are looking for PLM systems, one of their main concerns should be how the solution can help implement changes manageably and efficiently to so many products.

Besides product features, business process is another important factor that explains the uniqueness of fashion and retail PLM. I will discuss this in a future blog post.

Noticing the features of fashion products and the uniqueness of fashion and retail business processes, when analysts at Technology Evaluation Centers (TEC) were building evaluation models for PLM solutions specialized for the fashion and retail industries, we adopted an approach that categorizes solution functionality in two groups—one focusing on simulating the business process related to the product life cycle, and the other serving as enablers that facilitate the management of product collaboration from a PLM perspective. You can visit TEC’s PLM Evaluation Center to see how the fashion PLM and retail PLM evaluation criteria can help in your solution selection process.
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