Product Lifecycle Management

PLM Strategies-If the Shoe Fits

1 Dec, 2005 By: Kenneth Wong Cadalyst

Refashioning PLM for retail, footwear and apparel industries.


JACK, MY FAVORITE cobbler, was looking glum. Apparently his supplier had, without consulting him, shipped a box of nails with slightly larger heads. Unschooled in the art of shoemaking, I inquired why he was fussing over such a trifle. He explained why he couldn't just buy any nails off the shelf. He uses them to secure taps and heels to shoe bottoms. The smooth surface of a nail's head can cause skidding, so the bigger the diameter, the more likely his customer will twist an ankle or break a leg.

Jack's shoe-repair business probably won't make a good PLM case study, but Liz Claiborne's fashion empire does. Its portfolio spans more than 40 brands, from sunglasses and swimwear to suits and jewelry. At any given moment, it's directing the development, creation and distribution of multiple product lines, each one defined by a complex set of variables: color, size, material, pricing and so on. When Liz Claiborne goes shopping for a PLM system, it can't simply be something generic. Like my cobbler Jack, Liz Claiborne requires something tailor-made, something that takes into account the unique characteristics and practices of the footwear and apparel industries.

Windchill Gets a Makeover

Long before he became PTC's vice-president of engineering and research and development, Brion Carroll stumbled on the apparel industry's secret: "I walked into a brand store, and I saw all the products sitting there. I knew that they were handling four to six seasons simultaneously, juggling hundreds of suppliers and dozens of factories. I realized all of them had to be defined, designed and controlled. So I thought, well, they must have some hot systems doing this for them." As it turned out, they didn't.

Carroll was flabbergasted to discover that many apparel makers and retailers were using Excel, Lotus and homegrown applications written in Fox Pro or Visual BASIC to track their data. Later he started Aptavis Technologies to supply the much-needed system. FlexPDM was a Windchill-based solution aimed specifically at the footwear and apparel industries (figure 1). Aptavis was recently acquired by PTC and Aptavis' FlexPDM is now PTC's FlexPLM (www.ptc.com). In October, Liz Claiborne became PTC's customer.

 Figure 1. PTC s FlexPLM, formerly Aptavis s FlexPDM, is a Windchill-based solution tailored to suit the needs of the retail, footwear and apparel industries.
Figure 1. PTC s FlexPLM, formerly Aptavis s FlexPDM, is a Windchill-based solution tailored to suit the needs of the retail, footwear and apparel industries.

Adopting Windchill for the retail, footwear and apparel industries begins with a careful consideration of the breadth of roles involved: designer, merchandiser, product manager, sourcing, costing and so on. The next step is to assemble a PLM environment that complements the unique functions of these roles: line planning, color management, specification management, material and supplier management and so on.

"[Apparel makers] want to be able to specify, for instance, that the men's line is expected to create $140 million in a certain geographic region. Then they'll break it down further; they'll say this line consists of certain shirts and pants in certain quantities. When they start discussing the revenue potential for each line, they want to view wholesale price, quantity, cost and profit margin. Portfolio management, line definition and forecasting are intimately woven into the way they do business," observes Carroll. With this in mind, Carroll and his team gave FlexPLM an Excel-like interface that allows users to easily view, configure and edit fields (figure 2).

Figure 2. For effective sourcing and manufacturing, FlexPLM presents a comprehensive view of each product complete with supplier information, cost, duty, commission and all relevant variables.
Figure 2. For effective sourcing and manufacturing, FlexPLM presents a comprehensive view of each product complete with supplier information, cost, duty, commission and all relevant variables.

Operators of this PLM system range from the designer with the latest Apple G5 on a T1 line to the stockroom manager with a five-year-old PC on a dial-up connection. To accommodate them, FlexPLM operates with a small-footprint client. "People are using their browsers to access the information," Carroll says. "They can't be downloading little applets and engines that run in the background; they have to be able to get in from anywhere, on Macintosh or PC, so we made sure the technology is pure HTML and Javascript. We are also aware of the diversity of our customers, so we greatly ease the implementation process by striving for an 85% out-of-box solution that is highly configurable and scalable to grow as our customers' solutions grow."

We Need to Breathe the Same Air

Matthew Austin, PTC's director of marketing for its Consumer Products Group, recently met with leading Asian suppliers to U.S. apparel makers. One of the presenters, an executive from a Chinese firm, stressed the importance of data synchronicity, in a literal translation that turned his pronouncement into an ancient maxim: "We need to breathe the same air." Words to live by, as Austin sees it.

As retailers like Claiborne start to use PLM solutions, they will become capable of not only monitoring and managing their supply chains, but adjusting them as well. Depending on the feedback they receive on how well or poorly certain product lines are doing, they can cancel purchase orders or add suppliers. In addition, the footwear and apparel industries have heavily invested in technologies such as RFID (radio frequency identification) to better understand their consumers. Austin predicts that, in a few years, those that have integrated PLM technologies into their operations will be able to use the sales data from one season to drive the development of the next. That means Liz Claiborne and its loyal customers will be breathing the same air.

MatrixOne, Ready to Wear

In May, while retailers were marking down their spring collections to make room for the airy summer clothes arriving soon, MatrixOne (www.matrixone.com) released its Accelerator for Apparel Design and Development, the latest in a series of industry-specific PLM solutions. In the Webcast presented at the launch, Kurt Andersen, the company's vice-president of solutions consulting, outlined some of the business challenges that keep today's executives awake at night: globalization, the remote nature of workgroups and the lack of common processes, among others.

The Accelerators are meant to address the need for "a single version of the truth" for supplier collaboration (sounds to me like a variation of "breathing the same air"). The Apparel Accelerator is a role-based application, giving each participant exactly what he or she needs to see to complete the designated tasks. For effective supplier management, the application lets users assign levels of authority. Whereas a trusted vendor may be given the right to edit fields, new vendors may be restricted to viewing the data. Tamara Saucier, MatrixOne's principal industry consultant for retail solutions, explains, "The extended operation coverage includes the creation and management of line plans. After reviewing the market and trend information, your merchants and buyers can start to build line plans. They can include seam, body information, inspirational images, color direction, attributes, assortment preferences and so on. Everything is instantly updated, so if there are changes in design direction, it can be communicated instantly."

Figure 3. This line-plan view is configured to show the entire set of products for the benefit of the catalog channel.
Figure 3. This line-plan view is configured to show the entire set of products for the benefit of the catalog channel.

The flexibility of the application also allows users to configure the interface. The line plan view, for instance, can be customized as a textual view for the retail channel, which is usually more interested in the varieties of colors and attributes available for the line. By the same token, it can be adjusted as a graphical view for the catalog channel, which often likes to visualize the whole merchandise set (figure 3). Recognizing that forecasting and planning are integral parts of the apparel business, MatrixOne enables its Apparel Accelerator to not only track costs and profits but also issue alerts when a certain line falls outside expected parameters (figure 4). The single truth, as MatrixOne likes to call it, also contains return data, sales performance and data collected, which the apparel maker can consult to shape the next development cycle.

Figure 4. Seasonal calendars being the bread and butter of clothing manufacturers, MatrixOne s Accelerator for Apparel Design and Development uses a graphical interface to track the status of assigned tasks.
Figure 4. Seasonal calendars being the bread and butter of clothing manufacturers, MatrixOne s Accelerator for Apparel Design and Development uses a graphical interface to track the status of assigned tasks.

Out of the Box

In his 1995 article, "Principles of Cycle Time Reduction," researcher James C. Wetherbe observed, "In the apparel industry in the United States, $26 billion is lost every year due to cycle-time problems" (Cycle Time Research, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1995, www.people.memphis.edu/~cscm/ctr1/PrinciplesofCTR.pdf). The author identified "the time span between when a retailer decides to stock an item and when it is available for the consumer to buy"—the astonishing one-year lag time—as the primary cause. Nine years later, when Deloitte & Touche LLP turned its analytical eyes towards the industry, it found that the average time to market had sped up to 26 weeks, or six months, but some companies further trimmed 25–30% off this time by "practicing a unified system of product lifecycle management" ("Apparel and Footwear Industry Top 10 Issues," Deloitte, 2004, www.deloitte.com/dtt/cda/doc/content/us_cb_AFI.pdf).

PLM has ventured beyond its nest, beyond the confines of automotive and aerospace. It has one foot firmly planted in machinery and electronic goods. Now it dips its other foot into pharmaceutical and apparel industries. In the past, businesses in some of these industries have been discouraged, understandably, by the daunting customization and expensive consultancy required to make PLM suitable for their operations. PTC and MatrixOne are just two examples of vendors that have repackaged their core products as industry-specific solutions. PLM is now ready to wear, out of the box.

Next month, I'll start the new year by talking to some industry prophets to see what the future holds for PLM. For now, here's your humble columnist (in his newly heeled wingtips), bidding the old year goodbye and raising a glass to your health!

Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. He explores innovative use of technology and its implications. E-mail him at kennethwongsf@earthlink.net.


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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