PLM Meets the World With Mobile Apps

In the fast-moving apparel industry, customer demand rules most processes, priorities and principles. Even with video conferencing, Skype and the speed of the Internet, product development executives still spend long hours traveling back and forth across multiple continents to manage suppliers and contracts, all in the name of getting the right products to market at the right time.
Myriad developments have made the product development process exponentially faster and more efficient. Among these, Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) may arguably have had the greatest impact. Yet, even with continually advancing PLM applications, gaps have remained between the designer, factory floor and final customer. While the apparel industry’s processes are visual-focused, PLM has largely not been a visual tool. And while PLM has become the de facto “single version of the truth” for product development, many processes happen outside the realm of physical access to the PLM system. That means that information can be lost or delayed, or lose some accuracy, between the actual process and its entry into the system and subsequent use.
Meanwhile, mobile apps have come out of nowhere and now leverage multiple mobile device platforms. These mobile apps – once thought to be the domain of gamers and the “gadget-happy” – are proving to be a solid business tool capable of delivering true value.
When the twain shall meet…
Now, however, PLM systems are embracing mobile apps. Far more than simply using an iPad or other mobile device to log into a PLM system with Web access, true mobile apps are bringing to PLM their own, unique functionality – which works only on a mobile platform – to leverage that platform and the underlying mobility.
In fact, mobile apps are already enabling fashion houses and brand owners to increase customer satisfaction – and the bottom line – in a way that has not been possible before. Some allow fashion houses and designers to present their collections to buyers significantly faster and more accurately – even capturing designers’ last-minute style updates in the PLM system and then reflecting those updates in the collection books buyers receive.
Using these mobile app-based collection books, fashion houses can take orders at a show, at post-show corporate-buyer events, or immediately after runway or other major public showings in local retail boutiques – anywhere in the world. Accurate style information feeds from the PLM system directly to the customer in a visually appealing, highly intuitive style on current mobile platforms.
In the buying process, mobile apps that connect to a PLM system significantly speed transactions and the ability to customize. Reps meeting with suppliers can accurately capture their offerings during a meeting, discuss customization and modifications with the rest of the product development team, and then propose and agree to modifications with suppliers – on the spot.
Sample review is another critical process that is benefiting from mobile apps. In an industry highly geared toward the visual, mobile PLM apps allow technical designers and others to more easily determine if samples meet specifications. Communication of changes back to the supplier can become almost instantaneous with photos, markups, video, audio and the ability to attach photos to sketches.
This direct visual input into the trend board and concept/storyboard process allows apparel companies to accurately capture up-front trend information on collections. Mobile apps capture wide-ranging information, such as a photo of a runway model, a snapshot of a street fashionista wearing a style that might set the tone for next season’s collections, or even an audio note of key design-team feedback attached to a new sketch. Apps that add audio and visual input directly into a PLM system make getting trend-right information into the design process faster and, ultimately, less costly.
The value: moving PLM out of the cubicle
Mobile apps are effectively moving PLM out of the cubicle and into the places where designers, buyers and suppliers are working and making real style decisions. They can link together visual accuracy, immediacy of information and a PLM system that can accompany a mobile design team as it pursues design and development processes. This ability – to do so whenever and wherever those processes occur – is transforming the way product designers and manufacturers perceive and use PLM. 
  • PLM frees the product design and development teams: Mobile apps remove artificial burdens or constraints of physical location that traditional PLM technology, frameworks and methodologies can impose on design and development specialists. In reality, many of the processes in which the development team engages simply do not happen in the office. Designers are more likely to spot the latest trends on city streets. Technical fit sessions happen in rooms where real people are trying on samples. Sample evaluation takes place onsite at supplier locations in Asia or Latin America.

    If PLM’s single greatest value is the “single version of the truth” it delivers to product teams, then the addition of mobile apps extends that same value to the mobile processes and team members involved in product development. 
  • Improves customer satisfaction: Fashion companies historically have relied on error-prone paper systems to present collections and style ordering options, and to collect orders from corporate and retail customers. Failure to capture the latest changes to style options or availability can result in discrepancies between customer demand and available supply, which frustrates the retail or corporate customer. Replacing these antiquated systems with mobile PLM apps ensures inventory and purchase order accuracy, improves customer satisfaction and increases sales. 
  • Brings the consumer to product development: Beyond simply taking a mobile device and app right to the factory floor, mobile PLM apps bring the consumer closer than ever to product development. Mobile apps put PLM into the hands of the people who are actively engaging in the product development and buying process. 
  • Increases accuracy – Mobile PLM use increases accuracy across the board. Uploading photos directly into an image library allows team members to review and quickly start using sophisticated markup tools on those snapshots.
Mobile apps for PLM are changing the way the fashion industry works. Instead of PLM serving as the back-end “pipes and plumbing” of the industry, mobile apps are turning the technology into a dynamic tool that connects product development’s technical processes with the consumer-driven creation process. Allowing PLM to sustain innovation where it happens – versus hours, days or weeks later, filtered by interpretations and time delays – is bringing a new level of freshness and efficiency to the industry.
James Horne is the senior director of marketing for Centric Software, Inc. He recently made a presentation on mobility and PLM to a standing-room-only crowd at the Apparel Tech West Conference in Los Angeles.