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PLM In The Age Of COVID-19

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Several weeks ago, I talked about technologies that will be critical for retailers in the coming year. There was one really important technology I inadvertently left off that list, and so it’s time to discuss it today: Product Lifecycle Management or PLM.

The COVID-19 crisis is not over, even though we all wish it were. Certainly, the number of hospitalizations and deaths in the Northeast United States seems to have slowed, and Europe and Asia are (mostly) re-opening their economies. But hotspots persist, and big questions remain about a “second wave” this coming fall. In fact, WHO reports that Beijing has a cluster of cases that may indicate their second wave is beginning.

Which buyer(s) wants to travel to China or other country to work on product design? How many of us want to deal with sample packs flying back and forth across the planet while both sides work to get it right? And then find out that there’s an outbreak near the factory we picked, and we have to go in another direction anyway?

Of course, the answers are the same: “hardly anyone.”

In the age of COVID, where an outbreak can happen anywhere, at any time, don’t we need flexibility in sourcing? An outbreak in China, for example, would still leave the US as a viable market. But ensuring a continual flow of product requires vetting different sources and providing a detailed enough tech pack that the product can be made elsewhere.

Of course, the answer is yes. The outbreak isn’t over, we’re waiting for the “second wave” and the industry absolutely needs to have some viable options and sourcing flexibility.

And suddenly, PLM becomes incredibly important, both in product development and in sourcing and production.

Of course, versions of PLM have been around since the late 1980’s. I can remember torturously sharing images of sample shoes with our Chinese suppliers over 1200 baud modems (for those of you who are not old, you don’t even want to know how slow that is…). Still, physical samples went back and forth.

The technology for PLM has improved dramatically. While in the past, it might have been over-engineered for apparel and footwear, it is coming down to earth. Last week, at Aptos’s virtual user conference: Engage, I got my first glimpse into their new PLM system, and I was frankly impressed. Along with features one might expect – the ability to mark up a sample with requested changes, for example – I saw, at last, a valid and helpful use of Augmented Reality. I watched a dress get rendered on top of a white piece of paper. You could see the pattern, movement, and fall. Aspects of the design that had been flagged for change we still highlighted – basically the designer puts a virtual “pin” in it.

I saw the same with a handbag. The handbag was rendered in actual size (that might’ve been challenging with a dress!) and watched as color, pattern and texture were changed on the fly. It was very cool.

There’s a lot more I need to learn about Aptos’s new PLM system, and I will provide a fuller report once I’ve spent some time with it. Certainly, there are other vendors who have strong PLM solutions as well. This is not a vendor round-up, but I would remiss if I didn’t mention NGC (sister company to Logility), Dassault Systemes (who own Centric), Gerber and others I’m sure I’m leaving out. In fact, if you think I’ve left you out unfairly, please drop me a note. I’d love to have a briefing!

What’s most important here is to understand that this is a critical time to have a strong PLM system that can easily be deployed and understood in various parts of the world. It’s not clear how history will record these times. Living through them is frustrating on a good day and agonizing on a bad one. We have to work together to get through this (and no, I’m not going to say, “We’re all in this together.” If I hear that once more, I might throw something at the TV). Tempers are short, and time is fleeting.

PLM is a necessary tool to hedge sourcing bets, and to get products created on time and within a reasonable budget.

As I said in my last piece on “necessary technologies,” it’s rare for me to tout pure technologies as a solution to a problem. This year is different. We have some necessary technologies to keep the consumer economy flowing. PLM is one of those technologies. It just is.

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Articles & Opinions June 16, 2020
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