Web-based PDM: Once the Exception, Now the Norm


Product development management (PDM) technologies are quickly becoming essential tools in today's global apparel market.

Not long ago, a typical product development timeframe looked something like this: A product was designed in New York, specifications were faxed, a sample or swatch was shipped back, and this went back and forth for a month or longer before a production-ready sample was completed.

Web-based product development management (PDM) technology is revamping the entire process for many of today's apparel companies. "That same designer can put together a packet of information on a given day in New York, and literally by the following morning, every office in the network around the world can be evaluating what it's going to take to develop the product, pricing it and talking to factories, literally within a 24- to 36-hour period," says Rick Darling, president of the global brands group at Li & Fung USA, where Gerber Technology's WebPDM system was recently implemented.

Having a Web-based platform to share information is becoming a requirement for apparel companies that want to integrate product design with overseas product development, says Darling. "A year or two ago, we would have said it was a great thing to have to cut down on lead time," he says. "But for most of our clients and certainly for us, it really has become an assumed trait for how we do business."

Product ideas can be shared with the firm's global network of sourcing partners almost in real time, says Darling, who adds that WebPDM allows Li & Fung to collaborate with its design centers in 40 countries. "The speed is almost hard to measure, at this point," he says.

PDM technology enables you to make the "riskier" decisions about the right product closer to when you actually have to put it in front of the customer, says Darling. "So the actual cycle time from deciding what to buy, to the time you actually have it on your retail selling floor, has become as compressed as we can possibly make it," he says.

Even core products such as basic sheets and towels that aren't what you'd typically consider "volatile" may be so from an inventory management standpoint, adds Darling, who notes: "Even in those categories, we are looking to shorten time."

PDM can apply to smaller companies too

While PDM solutions have become an essential tool for apparel's major players, smaller firms will soon be taking advantage of the technology by sharing their PDM platforms through application service provider (ASP) arrangements, predicts Darling. (See "Apparel Firms Warm Up to ASP Model," Apparel, October 2004.) Alternatively, supply chain management companies may provide PDM platforms for their smaller customers via the ASP model, he says.

One mid-sized apparel business that reports it has benefited from PDM technology is urban wear purveyor Ecko Unlimited. Prior to implementing Gerber's WebPDM, there was a "very disorganized data saving system" at the company, with information stored on individual user desktops, shared servers and even diskettes, says Tracy Love, director of business solutions. "We spent a good deal of time looking for files before, and wondering if we had the latest version," she says. "This has given us a central data location for everything. All of our style, fabric and trim information now lives within the same database."

Before PDM, e-mail was used to share information and files, says Love. But now, for instance, Ecko's Hong Kong sourcing and production team pulls data such as Illustrator files directly from the server.

The evolution of PLM in apparel

Though used in the automotive, electronics and aerospace industries for years, product lifecycle management (PLM) systems are new to the apparel industry, but major players are catching on quick. "Most companies are now trying to move toward the PLM tools, not only to help them manage information about their products, but also to help them standardize the process that controls the commercialization of styles while giving them progress reporting visibility," says Paul Herring Jr., global director of apparel IT at Nike, which is implementing a PLM system from PTC.

For Nike, PLM offers both greater speed to market and better management of the portfolio of products offered to its customers, says Herring. "By eliminating duplicate entry of information and standardizing processes where it makes sense, we believe that we will create greater connectivity with our consumers and innovation in our product," he says.

Micky Swaim, vice president of operations for Sara Lee Branded Apparel Asia, reports that a PLM solution has improved efficiency across the entire product development cycle. "It's also helping us better manage a more diverse set of product SKUs as we move into more innovative products," he adds.

For instance, during the fabric development process, yarn suppliers and textile mills can use the PLM solution to work back and forth with technical resources, speeding approval of the end product, says Swaim. "The efficiency is in removing a tremendous amount of e-mails and faxes, which are replaced by a more focused set of discussions on the relevant elements that end up making the finished product," he says. "It is facilitating our internal collaboration, as we have greater worldwide access to important information about the products."

Swaim says PLM technology also is helping Sara Lee identify and eliminate bottlenecks by better understanding cycle time on processes such as lab dips. "Before, those metrics were virtually nonexistent because they were very hard to capture," he says.

Another advantage is that the whole team uses the same embedded product development timeline. "That is very meaningful in terms of [our] being more disciplined with our many different tasks and completion dates," he says.

Ultimately, Swain says he envisions PLM systems' enabling "complete collaboration going all the way to our customers, and potentially even consumers" to get real-time feedback about emerging design concepts. "We think [PLM is] a huge differentiator for the apparel industry," says Swaim. "Being the best at time to market, with the right relevant product, is really going to set the winners apart. It's a compelling capability that you simply must have."

STACI KUSTERBECK is a free-lance writer based in Long Island, NY, who frequently covers business topics for trade and consumer magazines.

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