Advances in Pre-Production Product Innovation and PLM

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Advances in Pre-Production Product Innovation and PLM

By Victoria Brown - 03/30/2017
Digital transformation has left every corner of the retail world changed in countless ways. It was only a matter of time before the design process was digitally interrupted as well. As individuals interact with digitally transformed experiences in their everyday lives, why wouldn’t they want their experience at work to be just as seamless and well thought out?

More than ever, we’re identifying a convergence of retail, wholesale and manufacturing. Removing the fragmentation of industries and communication leads different parties to expect to have a similar experience across steps in design and throughout the supply chain. It was once said that “our best experience anywhere sets our minimum expectation everywhere.” Software providers have caught on to this notion, and are giving retailers and wholesalers the tools they need to get their jobs done in the manner in which they want to work. In IDC’s 2016 Supply Chain Survey, for the first time in the history of the survey, retailers identified their top priority moving forward as “product quality.” Retailers cannot move forward and maintain a high level of quality standards without the proper tools.

Fast fashion is also creating a sense of urgency around faster turnaround on time to market from the design stage. No longer are design stages months long and far ahead of the season. The ability to find goods anywhere in the world is putting pressure on retailers to stay on trend and respond quickly to shifts in styles and expectations. In order to enable this agility and flexibility, retailers and wholesalers need tools that can speed up the design process and expedite creation.

Not only are retailers pressured to respond quickly and efficiently, but also to source sustainably and cost effectively. Expediting creation is not necessarily the most cost-effective method by which to create new items, so having tools that empower designers to make more economic decisions or strategic choices in their materials or suppliers puts the power in their hands to sustain acceptable margins, or identify optimal sourcing partners. Production can also be expedited through use of third platform technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, as well as 3D imaging and assortment planning, allowing retailers to stay competitive in a fast fashion world.

As a whole, the PLM and product innovation industry has been undergoing more transformation in just the past few years than it has seen in the last centennial. Retailers that don’t adapt their design processes will fall behind their peers and competitors, and those that transform the way they work will be a strong force to be reckoned with.

The approach  
Software providers are offering up a variety of tools to empower retailers and wholesalers to make more efficient moves and to flourish in their businesses. Below are a few examples of tools available that are changing the way designers work, and expanding the opportunities to collaborate and shake up the game.

1. Cloud-based collaborative sourcing networks
Up until recently, retailers stayed with many of the same suppliers they’d been using for decades. This isn’t a terrible idea because it reduces risk, allows for stable relationships and maintains standards over time. However, this does minimize opportunity for competitive pricing, chances to expand portfolios and the opportunity to reach outside your comfort zone to try something new. It also leaves retailers unaware of the potential of their extended networks.

One way retailers are facing this head on is by using tools that give them direct access to sourcing networks that are strategic to their end goals, whether that be to have cost-competitive materials, to source locally or sustainably, or simply to spread out their risk across many suppliers.

Through collaborative networks, retailers can decide what materials they want and how they want to source them, which in turn affects their bills of materials (BOM), margins and ultimately, bottom line. Power is put back in the hands of the retailers to decide how they want to source, down to the raw materials level. Rarely before have retailers had the opportunity to reach countless suppliers at their fingertips without having to do extraordinary legwork to have such an expansive network available.

2. Thinking in 3D: From design to shelf: digital assortment visualization
Imagine not only being able to see your designs digitally, but to be able to put your whole season’s concepts visually next to each other to identify patterns, gaps and overlaps in selection. Now imagine you could not only see the items designed against the rest of the season, but also the margins associated, and visual cues on how products have sold through in the past or store flow. Also imagine store mock ups that are so photorealistic that most humans can’t tell the difference from the real thing. 

3D can be broken down into several capacities. The first is the capability of 3D modeling for the overall store experience. Retailers that can see their portfolios through the eyes of their consumers and what the finished products will actually look like in reality and in stores can better align their product mix. For retailers that don’t design their private label but carry brands, 3D modeling allows them to strategize presentation zones and compare different store layouts for different regional or localized demands.

Creating a solution that allows for a visual understanding of the portfolio benefits retailers in several ways. While standard catalogs and lists of designs are fine organizationally, it keeps pieces separate while planning the full assortment. Having the opportunity to visually lay out all the items in the format in which they’ll be sold in stores gives designers a more visual representation of the gaps or overlaps in their season’s mix. Additionally, extracting financial sales data into the store layout and against historical trends, retailers can make more well-informed decisions about product placement, complementary SKU placement, and overall layout strategy for conversion opportunities. In all, being able to align designs, sales data and conversion information into a highly visual tool puts power back in the retailers’ hands to test and simulate their concepts before putting them into action when the stakes are real.

The second use case of 3D rendering is in the design of the products themselves. The true benefits of being able to digitally render a product are the speed of bringing a product to market and reduced  labor and time on sampling. Tools are coming to market that allow physics to play out in a virtual simulation to show how apparel will fit and fall. These opportunities can be further broken down in the following examples through tension control simulation and augmented reality.

3. Tension control monitoring and pattern marker alignment
One concerning aspect of designing in a digital framework deals with materials used, tension and drape. For as long as garments have been designed, fit, textures and pattern alignment have been concerns. What if you could simulate the physics of the garment or insert stitch markers to identify how stripes would line up digitally? What if there were ways to see how the material would be strained or stressed based on body movements through heat mapping technology?

Through a process using pattern markers, a 3D design element that feeds real-time data back into the system of record, and visual cues on stitches, materials, and imagery, retailers can break down each design to extremely granular levels. When retailers can get so specific in their design elements, BOM breakdown, and color matching, they’re able to make decisions they can view on screen, and then the materials requirements are automatically updated. 

With tension heat mapping, materials can be tested on their tensile strength before they’re even shipped to designers. Rather than waiting for a design to be created, waiting for shipment, and then critiquing, designers can speed up the design process by eliminating many physical processes. This will be an extremely valuable capability to have as fast fashion holds strong, creating a need for quick delivery times.

4. Augmented reality: spec in real life
How accurate are your suppliers when creating designs to your spec? How do you decide if the spec you’ve created is actually how you intended it to look or lie? How do you isolate individual design aspects to critique, adjust and assess? What if there were a way to visually inspect designs, isolate components, and critique in real time? What if all of this were feasible without a measuring tape or any new hardware, for that matter?

Augmented reality tools have the ability to measure, annotate and adjust product designs in real time while inspecting them visually though an app connected through a mobile device. Retailers have the ability to truly align their finished products with original design components, and verify and validate spec measurements as they are visually connected through this toolset. Components of the design can also be isolated and rotated to view how they were designed, or how they connect to the rest of the pattern. Not only does this greatly reduce variance in design configuration, it speeds up final stage product validation, which ultimately leads to shorter times to market to keep retailers’ timelines expedient and competitive.

Future outlook
As retailers face digital transformation head on and aim to stay competitive in a fast fashion world, technological advances in pre-production are going to accelerate. We’re already seeing applications in augmented and virtual reality as previously mentioned. Not only is there a convergence across manufacturing, wholesale and retail, but also a blurring of the lines between digital and physical. Processes that have been completely hands on for decades are transitioning to digital interaction just as many other manual processes before them have done.

Fast fashion has also made it clear that it’s holding strong. We’re identifying retailers following multi-season assortment strategies with minimal replenishments, flourishing on the fact that they aren’t sitting on marked-down inventory. By keeping items scarce, they create more impulse buys and faster inventory turns.

While it’s not clear what exactly the future could hold, the possibilities are endless. Will there be texture simulations? Will you be able to digitally “try on” an item as we’ve seen some experimental mirrors enabling? While nothing is definite, we can be sure that the rate of change is growing exponentially. What are you doing to stay competitive? 

Victoria Brown is Senior Research Analyst of IDC Retail Insights.