Automating PLM for Apparel and Footwear Retailers and Manufacturers

TradeStone developing product lifecycle management solution to help retailers speed production, increase quality through better supply chain collaboration

TradeStone developing product lifecycle management solution to help retailers speed production, increase quality through better supply chain collaboration

New York — January 19, 2006 — Solution provider TradeStone Software is developing a product lifecycle management (PLM) module for its flagship suite, targeting the specific needs of the apparel, footwear and hard-lines community with collaboration tools to automate and more easily manage the product development process, from initial concept through delivery.

The new module, which is in development testing now with certain customers, is intended to provide the tools to enable a retailer and its suppliers to work collaboratively to develop new products, better manage the quality testing process, meet milestone deadlines and rate each party's responsiveness with scorecards, TradeStone said. The goal is to enable products to speed through the supply chain and reach the sales floor faster.

The TradeStone Suite is a set of application modules built around the solution provider's Unified Buying Engine, which creates commerce communities of retail buyers, suppliers, agents and inspections. The Suite also includes Product, Sourcing, Logistics, Finance and Unified Order Management modules. Together these are intended to provide retailers with the technology infrastructure they need to manage all aspects of the purchasing process, from the concept design and planning refinement to the initiation of an order through production and shipment, while providing a real-time view into each step.

"PLM emerged as a tool for discrete manufacturing, but traditional tools do not translate well to fit the needs of retailers," said TradeStone CEO Sue Welch. "At TradeStone we have a unique understanding of the needs of retailers when it comes to product concept and design, global sourcing and order management. We've adapted the concept of PLM to meet the retailers' requirements and delivered a valuable tool that is a natural extension of our product functionality."

The Cost of Development

As TradeStone sees it, the prevailing misperception is that garment development is a simple progression from an impulsive designer's sketch, to pinning muslin pieces together, to sewing the finished item together on the model before she rushes down the runway. Retailers understand that this idea is pure fantasy.

In the real world, product design and development can take up to 18 months, with iterative design improvements and changes communicated across time zones and languages. Samples are test marketed, fit specifications are modified, colors are refined, designs are constantly updated.

At the same time, the competition for product differentiation and increased profit margins that mark the retail industry mean that delays or missed communication can interrupt production, delay shipments, increase cost, impact sales and thereby pose serious threats to the viability of the company. In an industry where new collections make or break earnings, a company with $1 billion in revenues can save $1 million a year by shortening its supply cycle time by just one day, according to TradeStone.

Collaborating to Save Time and Money

Facilitating collaboration between designers, merchants, sourcing professionals and the factories is the first step for any product lifecycle management application. Moving from phone calls, faxes and e-mail strings to a centralized collaboration environment ensures that all parties are in sync with the latest requirements, TradeStone said. It is precisely the dynamic element of consumer demand, consumer fickleness and fashion trends that make retail so complex. With thousands of SKUs containing color, size and attribute options undergoing multiple iterations during their design and development, as well as numerous quality checks, TradeStone believes that the retail industry requires a specialized PLM solution.

TradeStone said its PLM for Retail module addresses these industry-wide realities with a series of "vendor collaboration tools" designed to facilitate the accurate communication of design iterations between the technical design group, merchandising and the factory. The solution monitors the progress of a product and assures quality throughout the process, starting with the design concept, the product brief, the technical package, the request for quote (RFQ), the order and various phases of testing, and it continues through to delivery. TradeStone claims its tools can speed the product design phase while making the manufacturing and testing phases 30 percent more efficient, which can shave significant length off the supply cycle time.

The new tools include:

  • Time and Action Calendars — Quality Assurance and Control milestones are key to product design and production, so keeping tabs on those benchmarks is critical to the full process. TradeStone said its PLM for Retail enables alerting, thereby promoting real-time collaboration to resolve issues and keep product moving toward the store shelves.

  • BOM Aggregator — Testing fabrics and trims begins before garments are ever assembled and continues through delivery. By understanding where common components, such as fabrics, trims and accessories, are used throughout the collection, retailers can address quality testing failures across multiple products.

  • Component Library — Retailers traditionally work off a base of approved configurations for a given season or for product families. The Component Library enables them to have a database of approved designs, as well as configurations or pieces, such as fabrications, buttons, zippers, trims, embellishments, etc. With bulk purchases of these key components, merchants can not only receive better pricing on raw materials, but also take advantage of leftover fabrics and trims to create additional items such as accessories or limited edition specials, TradeStone said.

  • Packaging Specifications — All too often, packing specifications are left up to the supplier, arriving at the retailer's distribution centers only to be rejected. With the TradeStone solution, hang-tags, care labels and inventory control tags can be specified in advance, stored in the component library and used on multiple garments.

  • Party Scorecard — Retailers and manufacturers want to build their relationships with confidence in the quality of their raw materials and finished goods even when their trading partners are across the globe. The Party Scorecard enables retailers to pre-qualify suppliers for a particular order based on their previous work and certifications and grade them on the quality of new orders received, TradeStone said. The Scorecard is also a tool for suppliers, enabling them to rate retailer timeliness with feedback, problem resolution and payment information.

  • Integration with Google Earth — TradeStone PLM for Retail integrates with Google Earth, a geospatial locator application, so retailers and vendors can identify their network of approved testing facilities to speed product through the rigors of testing. This can reduce travel expenses by auto-assigning resources based on commodity expertise, inspection locations and resource availability, TradeStone said.
Focus on Quality

Product lifecycle management was first adopted by discrete manufacturers who needed to keep track of product specifications in CAD designs, where-used information for standard components and subassemblies, as well as simulation testing. But TradeStone said that retail remains a very tactile industry, focused on the hand, drape and durability of fabrics and trim. Designs are still sketched on paper and pinned on size models. Planning allocation for the various pieces that comprise a collection is still determined by budget.

In addition, in the retail industry, collections are defined by their attention to quality — quality that cannot be simulation-tested as in discrete manufacturing. Apparel and footwear buyers need to touch, see and feel their components and are uniquely involved in every step of the product lifecycle. Designing and planning for a season's collection typically begins at least nine months in advance, with 90 percent of product designs never seeing the light of day due to the lack of communication between merchants, product designers and vendors, according to TradeStone.

While both discrete manufactured items and apparel can devalue rapidly, apparel operates on an environment of rapidly changing consumer trends and more competitive margins. The consequences of a poor product selection and delivery can result in a lackluster selling season and be disastrous on Wall Street. In order to take advantage of the price differentials associated with global outsourcing, retailers need to be extra vigilant about design changes, where-used implications and quality issues and require a PLM system to alert them to key milestones, updates and results. This information and quality resolution keeps production on track and moving toward the store floor.

"Apparel, footwear and hard lines retailers and manufacturers associate product lifecycle management with collaborative design iterations, sampling, quality testing and product refinement. The retail environment for PLM is very different and much more dynamic than traditional PLM for discrete manufacturers," said Ann Diamante, senior vice president and chief product officer of TradeStone Software. "In the retail industry, component materials, work-in-process and finished goods can undergo a battery of sampling, rigorous testing and re-work up to the last moment before in-line production starts. In order to keep deliveries on schedule, they need a comprehensive process and alerting system to capture and communicate specification changes, test results and potential production impacts and to provide the visibility to manage materials and resources effectively."

Monitoring Testing on a Global Scale

Typically, retailers try to take advantage of product data management solutions to organize their production specifications. But these systems were designed to integrate with cutting and piecing machinery, not to track quality testing, manage sourcing activities, unify the buying process nor maintain the official transaction details, making it difficult, if not impossible, to produce "one version of the truth" for financial reporting and Sarbanes-Oxley and C-TPAT compliance. Nor are PLM packages for discrete manufacturers the right fit for Retail PLM, TradeStone asserts, as they are not built for the diversity of attributes, rigors of quality testing or the inherent relationship with global sourcing, order management and supply-chain functions.

In the apparel, footwear and hard-lines categories, retailers must test for quality at all stages of design and production, something that is increasingly difficult when operating on a global scale. TradeStone said its PLM for Retail solution provides infrastructure and functionality to manage the process to keep critical milestones on track and move the right product effectively from design concept to the selling floor.

Additional Articles of Interest

— The focus in the retail sector has shifted from managing the movement of goods to managing information about goods. Read more in "Ramping Up the Retail Supply Chain," in the February/March 2005 issue of Supply & Demand Chain Executive.

— Read about the five phases of global sourcing that, if followed, allow an organization to implement a successful global sourcing strategy in the short-, medium- and long-term. See more in "Making Global Sourcing Work," only on

— Learn how a business process network ties in to the success of government mandate compliance and the 10 steps your company should take to accelerate business results in the exclusive article, "The Role of Trading Partner Integration in Achieving Compliance with Government Mandates."