This article discusses the application of product life-cycle management (PLM) concepts in all types of manufacturing industries. PLM can handle product complexity whether a company designs a few items with many parts or a number of products that need to be localized to many communities around the globe. Fashion-driven industries are using PLM systems in new, idiosyncratic ways, and that means that they cannot simply purchase and implement an existing system the way an engineering company can. In fashion, PLM is used to keep abreast of trends and consolidate designs and inspirations. A study shows that the retail and apparel industries aren’t nearly as focused on product development as engineering companies are. For engineers, PLM is a way to centralize and to focus on product development and innovation. In retail and apparel, PLM is used to manage the supply chain more than product development.
He Vendors of Product lifecycle management systems are in a constant battle against being pigeonholed. Sure, PLM has become a critical tool for manufacturers of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, or companies that produce and package food. But life cycle management can be used in all types of man ufacturing industries, the vendors say.
Indeed, engineers may not realize the various industries that use PLM now, or how the technology helps non-engineering companies. For instance, the technology is being used by a high-end watchmaker and an embroidery artist to determine how it could work for high-end design. And in the fashion industry, PLM could soon manage something as hard to define as the latest clothing trend in Tokyo or what shade is being touted as the new “black” during Milan Fashion Week.
In spite of the differences in the way engineers, chemists, retailers, and apparel makers use PLM, they’re using it for the same basic purpose: to organize and track data across the enterprise and around the globe, said Vipin Goyal, senior man ager at Kalypso, a technology consulting firm in Beachwood, Ohio.
Goyal is a mechanical engineer in a unique position to survey PLM’s use across industries. Often, PLM specialists are consolidated in one field and have little experience with life in any other. But not only has Goyal worked in the manufacturing and engineering world, helping to implement PLM systems at Hitachi Ltd. and Toyota, but seven years ago he turned to PLM consulting for the apparel, retail, and fashion industries (often abbreviated ARF).
For engineers, Goyal said, product lifecycle management focuses on managing a design or a bill of material, doing engineering change management tied to drawings and assembly, and tracking who has control of a part. These engineers often work for large companies with suppliers and operations housed at several locations around the world. They also tend to have a lot of moving parts to track with up-to-the-minute precision, he said.
So for engineering companies, the moving parts that need to be tracked are usually composed of CAD designs that change and are updated by a number of team members frequently. For the retail and fashion industry, the moving parts are often stockkeeping units, or SKUs—the string of letters and numbers that are used to track and identify products.
“Fashion and Retail have Really Event-Short Development Cycles. They have to come up with a Product within a few Months, and that’s Quite a Challenge.”
It’s a common shorthand to think of PLM as a large file devoted to a product’s development. With a PLM system, users—whether engineers, designers, sales managers, suppliers, or project managers—know where to go to find the latest information about the product.
And the system ensures each file revision is tracked and is immediately updated and that all users have access to the latest changes. Users—no matter where they’re located—can also comment on changes or potential changes. A PLM system also ensures that only those who are permitted to see file information have access.
Sometimes the technology is called product data management, or PDM, though definitions vary by vendor. According to Goyal, PLM systems focus on overall product development while PDM systems don’t necessarily include the bill of material and engineering change management capabilities present within PLM systems.
Many of these capabilities can be useful in any industry. What separates the way engineering firms and fashion houses use PLM, Goyal said, can be summed up in one word: seasonal.
“The emphasis in retail isn’t on designing a complicated cell phone or car with its many parts but on the season or on seasonal events like Valentine’s Day or back to school,” he said. “Fashion and retail have really event-short development cycles. They have to come up with a product within a few months, and that’s quite a challenge.”
The retail and apparel industries use PLM to track breakneck development processes and to make sure those processes remain on trend and on schedule. It’s also used to track the location of the huge number of SKUs and product variations managed within those industries.
“With a car the maximum variation you can have is from the premium version to the version without any extra options,” Goyal said. “But with fashion even a single trouser can run from extra small to large in six different colors and in men’s and women’s versions. So you can have a few hundred variations of that one item.”
The retail and apparel industries aren’t nearly as focused on product development as engineering companies are, he added. For engineers, PLM is a way to centralize and to focus on product development and innovation. In retail and apparel, PLM is used to manage the supply chain more than product development, he said.
“If you look at the complexity of developing an automobile engine or a high tech device, it’s obviously much more complex than a T-shirt,” Goyal said. “But for a T-shirt you have to understand how many sizes, colors, and assortmentsyou need to supply where—so the focus for PLM shifts from the product itself to the entire supply chain.
“In the apparel industry, the merchant is king,” he added. “The merchant decides the assortment for next season and might say: ‘These are the five new shirts, ten new jackets—two solid and two printed—that I’m looking for next season. Show me something.’
“That’s where PLM starts,” he said. “That provides the input to the creative and technical designers and teams following up, and that’s managed with PLM.”
Fabrics, dyes, packaging and packing, and other materials can be tracked with the system. In addition, production at the overseas factories that can produce millions of pieces per customer order may also tracked within the system, Goyal said.
For his part, Jonathan Riss, artistic director of the Jay Ahr House, which creates embroidered, high-end clothing in Paris, uses a new technology from Dassault Systèmes called FashionLab. The system comprises the vendor’s 3-D, PLM, and other software applications tailored to those in the fashion business. Riss uses the PLM aspect of the system to collaborate with niche experts in embroidery, mainly in China and India, he said. They provide him with their work and with ideas for future projects.
Watchmaker François Quentin, founder of the luxury watch company 4N, also in Paris, is using the FashionLab system to collaborate with suppliers and retailers, said Jerome Bergeret, director of FashionLab at Dassault.
“Fashion designers don’t use PLM the same way that engineers do. In fashion PLM is used to keep abreast of trends and consolidate designs and inspirations.”
Innovation from Anywhere
Fashion designers don’t use PLM the same way that engineers do. According to Goyal, in fashion PLM is used to keep abreast of trends and consolidate designs and inspirations.
“In retail, fashion, and apparel, your innovation can come from anywhere,” he said. “If it’s a jeans company coming up with a new jean, they have to understand the United States customers’ preferences and then the trends coming from Tokyo and Italy or Paris or India or Hong Kong. It’s really getting inspiration from trends from so many different parts of the world and still maintaining your brand presence. You don’t want your brand to look completely different in Tokyo and New York.
“For PLM it’s funnel all those different inputs and come up with products that are meaningful to all different tastes but are unique,” he added. “It’s a different world over here in retail, fashion, and apparel than when I was in engineering.”
PLM can handle product complexity whether a company designs a few items with many parts or a number of products that need to be localized to many communities around the globe, said Joe Escoe, PLM strategist at Procter & Gamble. Escoe was a speaker at the 3DExperience Forum sponsored by Dassault Systèmes in November 2012.
Procter & Gamble—headquartered in Cincinnati but with locations around the world—has implemented a PLM system from Dassault.
The consumer product company relies on the system to help with product design and qualification, and to ensure it is using parts in cost-effective ways. For example, though a razor may be customized for different markets around the world, the PLM system can help ensure that all the critical components of the razor, such as the blade, are identical for all models, Escoe said.
Standardization wherever practical streamlines production and cuts down on the number of different parts and components needed from suppliers, he added.
“We want to deliver the same designs everywhere as much as possible,” he said. “So we look at component reuse in our PLM system.”
The system also ensures that employees responsible for moldmaking and for packaging the products are part of the product design cycle, he said.
Fashion-driven industries are using PLM systems in new, idiosyncratic ways, and that means that they can’t simply purchase and implement an existing system the way an engineering company can, Goyal said. Retail-fashion-apparel systems need to be customized with a consultant’s help exactly to their needs.
“Macy’s could never use a system just as it is,” Goyal said. “The technology has to go through various business processes. And the design team and the product development team and the sourcing team will all get a chance to give input and customize it to their needs.”
One thing Goyal has noticed from his work in both the engineering and the retail- fashion-apparel industries is a difference in the time it takes for employees to become enthusiastic about a new PLM system.
“Engineers tend to be more receptive to new systems,” he said. “But when you come to dealing with creative designers, I wouldn’t say the system is a problem, but it takes longer to get them to understand how the new system and process will help them because they need to be comfortable it will make them more creative and not less.”
While engineers may bristle at not being called creative, looking at how PLM systems are used in other fields may give them some fresh perspective on innovative ways to use the software they rely on every day.