In California, Conference Shines Light on Golden Opportunities


Rooted in the gold rush of the 1800s, California has for more than a century been regarded as a land of opportunity, and, as it pertains to the state's apparel and textile footprint, the assertion continues to hold merit even in challenging industry conditions.

Despite the offshore movement, California maintains its aura as a creative hub of fashion design and production, particularly in the glitzy Los Angeles region that reportedly employs more than 100,000 in the apparel and textile sector. Many apparel companies in the Golden State still specialize in providing premium fashions and quick-turn production, proficiencies that have helped the area to maintain a niche industry base while somewhat offsetting advantages held by others globally.

California's vibrancy was in evidence on April 2 at Apparel's Tech Conference West. Held at the ultra-modern Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) campus in Irvine, the inaugural event (complementing Apparel's annual Tech Conference in New York) attracted almost 150 apparel executives representing major retailers and manufacturers.

The event featured more than a dozen educational sessions that addressed design and product development, manufacturing, information technology, sourcing and logistics and retailing.

Enthusiastic attendee turnout and session content seemingly disproved the notion that the apparel industry is notoriously behind in considering new technologies - a point emphasized in the conference's keynote address: "Apparel is now actually ahead of a lot of these [other industry] segments," said Paula Rosenblum, managing partner of Retail Systems Research LLC (RSR), in delivering her presentation, "PLM Squared: Product Lifecycle Management Powers Private Label Merchandise."

"As backwards as we always think we are, apparel and footwear are really leaders these days."

As Rosenblum's presentation indicated, a dramatic surge in the private label merchandise mix by retailers, particularly during the past year, has underscored the need for more collaborative systems. The survey shared by Rosenblum suggests that 77 percent of retailers increased their private brand mix this  year.

"Suppliers become partners driving speed to market," she said. The approach is working, Rosenblum added, thanks in part to the adaptation of increasingly sophisticated sourcing and PLM software. RSR's research indicated, for instance, that 47 percent of respondents brought a new product to market within a six-to-12-month time cycle this past year, vs. 28 percent accomplishing the same feat in a similar time frame the previous year.

As globalization becomes more entrenched, new issues are emerging. Whereas finding and keeping dependable supply chain partners was a main issue a few years ago, "in 2007-2008 quality issues are taking center stage," as factories are managed across the globe, said Rosenblum.

RSR's study identifies "inconsistent product quality" as the top business challenge in private label merchandise management these days, with concerns over predictable lead times subsiding.

"The days of trying to eke a penny from your suppliers are kind of over," Rosenblum concluded. "It needs to be a win-win [arrangement]." Collaboration - not coercion - is the new name of the game, Rosenblum asserted.

Technology as enabler, PLM high priority 
Echoing Rosenblum's points, several exhibitors at the conference cited globalization and other obvious industry shifts as they touted the benefits of technologies including product lifecycle management (PLM).

"I believe we're getting to a pretty mature phase right now, where anybody that doesn't have a PLM system or a sourcing visibility system is at a competitive disadvantage," said Mark Burstein, vice president of PLM for New Generation Computing (NGC). A key reason, Burstein elaborated, is the dispersed organizational structure of today's apparel companies vs. that of yesteryear, when the design and factory teams were just down the road from each other.

Burstein noted during a presentation that PLM has helped companies cut cycle times by 10 percent to 15 percent while enhancing margins by as much as 20 percent. He cited the tracking, visibility and exception management benefits achieved through a comprehensive PLM system that can allow the user to stay prioritized on key issues: "Don't make me look through 1,000 styles or 500 purchase orders," he said. "Give me the ability to focus all my energies on solving the problems and put that on a dashboard. That's really where PLM is evolving."

Ray Hein, Centric Software's executive vice president of market strategy and business development, said that PLM technology's significant ROI benefits have led apparel firms to consider PLM investments precisely because of the slumping economy.  

Hein, who has 18 years of domain expertise developing PLM solutions, said that rapid advancements with PLM technology are nullifying the weighty costs, consuming time cycles and growing pains that occurred with implementations years ago.

Additionally, he noted that some vendors, including Centric Software, are tailoring their software specifically for apparel, moving beyond PLM systems of past years, which were largely modeled from other industries such as automotive and aerospace.

Centric Software has developed an apparel-focused web solution that uses Ajax search technology (utilized by Google), and can be deployed in a 12-18 week time frame. "Lots of study data suggest the lifespan of a CIO is three years at an organization," Hein says, "so it can be a real struggle if you don't have your systems up and running these days in a very fast period of time."

PLM solutions are becoming more robust and enterprise-wide vs. older incarnations, which Hein says were PDM-focused and "centered on the manufacturing and the data management end."

PLM Maturation
As expressed at Tech Conference West, processes surrounding PLM implementation are also evolving.

Eric Roesch, principal solutions consultant for Dassault Systemes Enovia, advocated a "think big, start small, scale fast," methodology that first identifies key business goals and tailors an implementation plan typically starting out in one area of the company.

"Benefits of a phased approach are that you realize value more quickly and it facilitates incremental organizational change," said Roesch, whose company has recently implemented PLM solutions for Under Armour and other apparel companies.

PTC's regional director for North America, Scott Starr, cited PLM benefits including reducing cycle time, adopting fast fashion and increasing supply chain collaboration.

"We've reached a point where weekly store sets require fresh new merchandise in order to compete in today's marketplace," said Starr in outlining the need to master global product development.

Starr pointed to PTC customer Converse as an example of a company that has leveraged the vendor's "PLMExpress" implementation methodology to  deploy PLM in 12 weeks. "In today's challenging retail economy companies are looking to deliver technology quickly to their user base in order to rapidly deliver results and impact the bottom line," said Starr, whose firm claims more than seven years of implementing the technology for the apparel, footwear and retail industries.

Also showcased at Tech Conference West were sophisticated technology offerings that are complementing PLM solutions. Lectra showcased Kaledo, a collection management application that is part of its "Fashion PLM" suite.

Jill Simmons, the firm's business development director, said the application helps aggregate huge design libraries while also enabling users to create styles with drawing and sketching tools. "With an ever-increasing number of collections, Kaledo helps build brand strength and ensure significantly faster product development cycles," said Simmons.

Datacolor demonstrated its "Datacolor Spectrum" integrated suite of color management technologies designed to reduce the cost of production and accelerate speed to market. The company's ENVISION software, for instance, integrates with PLM and provides calibrated on-screen color samples complete with detailed images and texture to produce life-like product simulations and thus reduce or eliminate the need for physical samples.

Tukatech exhibited its recently unveiled e-Fitting software. The 3D simulator offers virtual sample making, taking the body scan of a fit model and creating an on-screen mannequin that can be outfitted with virtual garments to help designers adjust fit and design before a sample is made. The software can be viewed on mobile devices including Apple's iPhone.
Yunique Solutions shared information about new image management capabilities to its plmOn web-based solution. Recently deployed by some of its customers, the enhancements include digital storyboard, image sharing and Adobe integration tools specific for fashion designers, merchandisers and product developers.

Lawson Software presented and featured its "Lawson M3 Assortment Replenishment Planner." The single integrated solution is designed to achieve higher sell-through rates by addressing issues arising between assortment planning and replenishment. An alternative to a spreadsheet solution, the system is designed to be mindful of modern vertical integration trends, whereby many fashion brand owners and traditional manufacturers are becoming more retail-oriented.

ERP provides company-wide visibility
Along with PLM, demand for mission-critical Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions continues to be strong, said Brian Abraham, director of IT for Four Star Distribution. The San Clemente, CA-based company, located just down the road from FIDM, employs 100 but carries 22,000 active SKUs. Four Star Distribution markets C1RCA brand skateboarding shoes and apparel and its customers are influenced by sponsored athletes scattered across the map.

Four Star needed an ERP solution to follow the trends emerging from various regions, and its outdated system "was really going to put us out of business," says Abraham. Additionally, he said, consultants enlisted failed to understand the company's niche market.

Four Star Distribution achieved a turnaround when it deployed CGS's Blue Cherry to manage production, sales and distribution. Abraham said features such as its grid format and single-line plans help it stay on top of its business: "We needed to have visibility in that data," he said. "We've got it now."

American Apparel, the vertically integrated company now considered the largest U.S.-based clothing manufacturer, also cited benefits from a comprehensive ERP system during a conference presentation by Tory Lowitz, the firm's director of product development.

American Apparel recently completed the first phase of an implementation of the Microsoft Dynamics AX solution, provided by Sunrise Technologies. The ERP system is especially helpful considering American Apparel's "all under one roof" 800,000-square-foot operations in Los Angeles: The facility houses 200 sewing teams and also has its own knitting mill and dye house. It also contends with fabric shipments arriving at different times. While best known for its basic cotton knitwear, it continues expanding into dresses and denim. "We wanted more control [using one system,]" Lowitz said. "All our departments are on the same page now."

During its presentation, Advanced Systems Integration (ASi), a Gold Certified Microsoft Dynamics AX solution partner based in Orange County, CA, elaborated on the features of Microsoft Dynamics AX and discussed why it is tailor made for growing fashion companies. ASi, which has partnered with apparel companies including Fox Racing, Sole Technology and Fortune Fashion Industries, offers an AX-SMART Footwear Apparel Solution, based on the Microsoft Dynamics AX platform. 

Los Angeles-based Pebblestone Software, a Microsoft Partner of the Year award winner in 2007, discussed how apparel companies can benefit from its "Pebblestone Fashion" ERP solution, which is based on Microsoft Dynamics' NAV (Navision) technology. The software, according to president Harry Hidding, can significantly improve inventory management and other organizational processes.

The NAV technology is being used at 60,000 companies of all types and is scalable to more than 300 users, said Hidding. The solution integrates with and offers a similar look and feel to other Microsoft applications, such as Office and Outlook, and offers an add-on for style, color, size and dimension.

Michael D. Cole is associate editor of Apparel. He can be reached at [email protected].
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