In the fashion industry, product development is an iterative process that takes the effort of many people and departments. If your organization engages in product development, you’ll want to find the best way for you to organize, store and leverage information about each product you work on.
This is where Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) comes in. It's an A-Z process that allows you to create order and track each step of your development process. That includes all phases of the process along with the personnel involved. Your PLM should be a tool that you use to make informed decisions about new products and product lines driven by organized data. There’s a wealth of industry software that will help these efforts.
This article will walk you through the essentials for understanding fashion PLM along with tips for improving your organization’s development process. Here’s what we’re covering along with some quick navigation links to get the info you need:
What is Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)?
Fashion PLM is a cornerstone process for fashion brands. As the name suggests, it aims to organize the information, actions and personnel associated with the entire lifecycle of a product. This includes everything from ideation and sourcing at the beginning all the way to production and taking the product to market. Along the way, product lifecycle management accounts for steps within the development process and approval process.
Product lifecycle management was first developed by the automobile and aviation industries. Manufacturing processes in those industries take sourcing and development to a whole different level. For example, aircrafts are composed of millions of individual pieces and can require sourcing from thousands of manufacturers when all is said and done. Imagine tackling this without a system for organizing, tracking and compiling data. Fashion took cues from this industry and developed a PLM process that tracks all inputs for a product.
With this level of detailed organization and management, fashion PLM drives improvement across these 3 critical areas:
- Product Cost
- Product Quality
- Time to Market
Cutting down your product development costs should always be on your mind. Sure, you want to have a good product that meets your buyer’s needs, but you also have to keep in mind the time and resources required for each step of development. Each input (from sourcing to design to revision, etc.) should have a cost associated that accounts for the materials, programs and paid personnel who are involved. Streamlining this with a fashion PLM should ultimately drive down your production cost.
By refining your PLM over time and over product lines, you will undoubtedly end up with better product quality. Important points to consider when assessing quality are: striking the right balance between efficient sourcing and material quality, establishing a design iteration process that leverages data from past products and a feedback process that includes only key stakeholders.
Decreasing your time to market is all about improving efficiency by eliminating waste. As you track the inputs of your product lifecycle management, you can make tweaks to cut out unnecessary or redundant steps. This helps better define your employees’ roles within the lifecycle and results in a streamlined workflow. Quicker time to market means a faster production process, more items per season and more opportunities to sell higher volume.
If you want to learn more about PLM for fashion, read on about the 4 phases and best tools. If you want to explore more methods for merchandising improvement, check out our blog on category management.
The 4 Phases of PLM
A product’s lifecycle includes everything from the creation of the product to the distribution and maintenance of that product over time. To implement a successful management system for this, you have to consider everything from end to end for a product. To start, you can think of the lifecycle in terms of 4 general phases.
1. PLM – Concept
Any product lifecycle has to start with a spark of inspiration. This is where the initial concept lives for a new product. Generally, this starts with research based on consumer needs or a pain point that the product may solve. Have a good grip on your buyer personas. Consider the needs of the consumer and how a retail organization’s buyer may perceive the needs of the consumer.
As a fashion brand, you are also considering industry trends and pulling examples for inspiration from all around. Any successful fashion PLM process will allow the creative minds to track the evolution of a product, even this early in the ideation process.
2. PLM – Design
After your team nails down the concept, we move into design and prototype territory. At this stage, designers are translating everything from that initial concept into a tangible product. In fashion, this is the stage where your designer starts with a sketch or technical drawing, then moves into creating samples and eventually fitting for the piece. Along the way, you’ll have input from other stakeholders in a feedback and approval process.
Good fashion PLM software will give you the ability to collaborate and store critical feedback/data in one platform. The best software solutions allow you to collaborate with 3rd-parties (like textile vendors and retail buyers). This gives the designer access to important financial data and feedback when creating and revising designs. It also helps coordinate all involved in the process to help you improve and delegate resources as needed.
3. PLM – Production
As you finalize your design and gather data from the previous phase, your product is ready to head into manufacturing. You’ll send your design to be produced where you’ll have a completely new set of actions and data to monitor.
In this phase, your organization will need to keep track of materials, labor costs, importing costs, sourcing countries, productivity indicators, scheduling and timelines. As these inputs stack up, it’s critical that your fashion PLM system can help you track and account for each one. Without organized and accessible data, you will likely experience unaccounted for costs, delays to market and incorrect ETAs for your sales channels.
4. PLM – Distribution and Maintenance
The final phase of your fashion PLM is distribution and maintenance of the finished product. Here, we’re talking about warehouse logistics and distribution to your sales channels. You’re considering the space, personnel and delivery services you’ll need to store and deliver your products en masse.
Further, in this phase you are going to need tools to monitor the product’s performance in relation to designated KPIs with sales and customer support data. Speaking in terms of a “cycle” this is where you’d come back around to the beginning. Before the next cycle starts, you’ll want to use the performance data that you’ve collected to make changes and improvements where necessary. It’s important to keep in mind that your fashion PLM is an iterative process that is meant to drive improvements over each cycle. The more organized data you collect, the more refined your process will become.
The PLM Process for Fashion Brands
Let’s walk through a practical example of how a fashion PLM system would help your process. As an example, let’s assume you are a clothing brand looking into winter trends for the season. This process will begin with your creative team. After tracking industry trends, considering seasonal consumer behavior, and pulling examples from around the industry, your team decides the new product will be a wide-leg trouser (fashionable and comfortable – everyone wins).
Your PLM system should track examples from other brands, the data that supports consumer demand (from previous sales if this isn’t your first cycle), the snapshots of trend-setting celebrities and influencers who are going to send consumers into a wide-legged trouser frenzy. This may seem like a nebula of intangible inspiration, but it’s not. From visual examples to data-driven consumer trends, your fashion PLM system should store and organize even your earliest points of inspiration.
Here’s a list of personnel involved in Phase 1 of your fashion PLM:
- Design Assistants
- Creative Director
- Product Managers
Moving on to Phase 2, you’ll have your design team come up with the specific trouser design. The head designer will work on an initial sketch, which will become a technical drawing that considers materials and finishing hardware. Key stakeholders such as the creative director, product managers and others (depending on your organization’s infrastructure) will give feedback on the initial design. From there, your creative team will continue the iteration process until all parties are satisfied with the trouser design.
3rd-party input may be a factor here, too. If you cater to your retail buyer’s needs, your creative team may be collaborating with them and providing mockups along the way. Creative will also collaborate with product managers who will work with 3rd parties, like textile vendors, to find the right material (at the right price) for your trousers.
The feedback you get along with the technical changes you make to your design should be stored in your fashion PLM system. These pieces of feedback and design tweaks can save you time and effort on the next generation of wide-leg trousers (and even other products). Not only is the design process iterative for your creative team, but the PLM process should leverage improvements in design to translate into improvements in workflow. With support from quality assurance partners, this should ultimately lead to improvements in both product quality and time to market.
Personnel in Phase 2:
- Design Assistants
- Creative Director
- Product Manager
- Quality Assurance
- 3rd Party Buyers
- 3rd Party Vendors
As your PLM moves into Phase 3 for your trousers, you’ll have exponentially more inputs. Depending on your organization, these will vary. For our purposes, we can estimate the following: Your design team will be responsible for taking the final wide-leg trouser design and translating that into a tech pack. They’ll send that tech pack (including measurements, materials, colors, hardware, grading, labels, etc. for your trousers) to the manufacturer. *Note: if your PLM software is good enough, and allows 3rd-party collaboration, you may be able to eliminate the tech pack step as the manufacturer will have the info they need.
From there, your product managers are responsible for noting cost of materials, labor costs, costs associated with the country of origin for your trousers, along with scheduling and time lines for delivery. They’ll also work with sourcing and quality assurance to ensure that your trousers are executed correctly. All of this information should be stored transparently in your fashion PLM system. This entails more collaboration with parties both internal and external.
Personnel in Phase 3:
- Design Assistants
- Creative Director
- Product Manager
- Quality Assurance
- 3rd-Party Manufacturing Reps
Finally, in Phase 4 your organization receives the finished trousers from the manufacturer. As you receive the shipment, your logistics team and warehouse team (assuming you have those in-house) will have to create a system to store, organize, produce a SKU number and eventually ship those pieces out to your sales channels. Your fashion PLM software should collect and aggregate this data.
As your internal sales works with buyers for various sales channels, you’ll want to track and assess how your wide-leg trousers perform at the consumer level. How did they sell? Did specific color variations sell better? How did your initial volume compare to expected sales? This is more data that you can leverage to improve the next cycle.
Personnel in Phase 4:
- Logistics Manager
- Warehouse Manager
- Warehouse Team
- Product Manager
- Sales Reps (Internal)
- 3rd-Party Buyers
- 3rd-Party Accounting
Our trouser example does a lot here. Think of all the speculated personnel, steps in the process and data points just for one pair of wide-legged trousers. Compound this by lines of products produced each season and you can easily understand why a fashion PLM system is critical to your company’s success.
PLM Tools for Fashion Brands
At this point, you’re probably wondering what tools you can use to implement and maintain a fashion PLM system. Many companies already use Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software. This helps them plan and manage their supply chain, finances, various services and other processes.
If your fashion brand already uses ERP software, you’ll want to look into PLM software that will work in conjunction with your system. Ideally, you’ll want to leverage the data already existing in your ERP system to get the ball rolling with your product lifecycle management.
Recent industry data shows that a PLM/ERP integration results in:
- 75% reduction in entering data from system to system (measure in relation to time, cost and effort)
- 75% reduction in bill of materials (BOM) errors as BOMs are created once and managed across both the PLM and ERP systems.
- 15% reduction in inventory costs, since designers and product managers are aware of which materials are already on hand.
- 8% reduction in waste (scrap generated).
In terms of an all-in-one solution, we recommend Surefront Unified Collaboration Management. PLM software reduces the exchange of emails and data re-entry during product development and can even reduce the need for tech packs but falls short of all the tools needed. Surefront takes a huge leap past traditional PLM with patented technology that allows your development team to engage with vendors and factories to complete products quickly and efficiently.
Surefront Full Product Lifecycle Management (FPLM) gives you the tools for internal and external communication all in one platform. It connects the dots by providing an end-to-end communication loop for all relevant parties. This allows designers to have the agility and timely feedback they need to push a product to completion. Learn more about how Surefront can help your fashion PLM process and so much more.