Extending PLM as an Engine for Post-Pandemic Recovery

Paul Magel, President of Application Solutions Group at CGS, shares his thoughts on how PLM can help our industry mid-and-post-COVID. BlueCherry Next PLM, from CGS, is a highly configurable, no-code product lifecycle management solution designed to meet today’s consumer brands, retailers and manufacturers’ needs.

The COVID pandemic has been a disruption event like no other in living memory, straining supply chains to the point of breaking, pulling the shutters down on bricks and mortar stores, and changing what we wear as the world suddenly switched to working from home.

But even though the scale of upheaval was gigantic, a lot of the changes people have tied to COVID were not new. The pandemic simply brought them to the top of the priority list.

Consider the shift to eCommerce: this was well underway before the virus hit, with customers expressing a clear preference for variety, convenience, and price. And at the same time other consumer behaviours were changing, with a heightened demand for personalized products, and a greater awareness of sustainability. Supply chain transparency and stability were also important concerns pre-COVID, that were accelerated to being critical ones when the dangers of having over-concentrated sourcing bases became obvious. And while it’s mission-critical today to bring new products to market as quickly as possible, cycle times were being driven down constantly, year-on-year, before 2020 as well.

COVID may not have uncovered new challenges, but it has increased the urgency of pre-existing ones. Where brands and retailers originally expected to have 5-10 years to shift their retail and sourcing strategies, that timeline has now shifted to 5-10 weeks.

Luckily, the same way these challenges existed pre-COVID, the solutions and initiatives to solve them did, too. From 3D and digital product creation to connectivity that provides near-time insights from the factory floor, a lot of capabilities were either emerging or reaching maturity pre-pandemic, so it’s understandable that these and other technologies are now top priorities for investment.

The universal requirement for new technologies and new processes, though, means that brand and retail organizations need to rapidly expand their technology infrastructure. Downstream, direct to consumer businesses are building out and scaling their eCommerce operations in a hurry. Back in the supply chain, visibility into production as it is happening has become a key strategic objective, since it will provide brands and suppliers with the ability to quickly pivot to new colours, styles, or even product categories in the face of future disruption.

In between those two extremes, PLM is solidifying its place as perhaps the most important engine for the retail, footwear, and apparel industry’s post-pandemic recovery. From hosting technical specifications and 3D assets, to being the centralized source of workflow and critical path data, PLM’s role at the heart of the extended enterprise ecosystem has only become more important over the last twelve months. And as a result, the footprint of PLM – in both a direct sense and through integrations – is expanding quickly.

Towards the end of last year, the team at CGS surveyed 100 brand and retail businesses to create the 2021 CGS Annual Supply Chain Trends And Technology report, and our findings revealed just how quickly the industry’s approach to extending PLM had changed. More than 60% of brands and retailers are now using PLM outside the walls of their headquarters – for collaboration with either remote workers and departments, or for supply chain collaboration, and more than half of the respondents were either actively involved in expanding PLM functionality, or were looking to make that expansion soon.

When we asked them to identify their top priorities for PLM, integration to other business processes occupied all the top spots. These included helping to enable omnichannel retail with accurate product data and visual assets, to enabling better-informed CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and ESG (Environmental, Social & Corporate Governance) strategies, and connecting 3D design, simulation, and visualization solutions.

It is no coincidence that each of these areas are also key priorities for digital transformation, with many brand and retail businesses pursuing rapid digital product creation strategies to keep their design and development processes running. But likewise, these are all areas that require a single, consistent, centralized source of product data and the assets that need to live alongside it, making them all top priorities for integration to PLM.

Now, as the retail industry – and the world – starts to rebuild in a stronger, more resilient form, retailers, brands, and their suppliers will be faced with the question of which of these integrations to tackle first. Because, while the appetite for broader transformation is strong, no brand or retailer will want to refresh their entire technology portfolio in one go. Instead, brands of all shapes and sizes will need to make decisions as to which components of their overall digital transformation strategy are the most logical short-term targets. The factors influencing that decision will include both the brand’s own strategic and operational priorities, and the integration capabilities of their PLM platforms.

For traditional, legacy PLM solutions, integrations are bespoke statements of work: individual projects that try to work around a lack of out-of-the-box support through either expensive development time, or complex middleware. This means that, as the retail industry’s COVID recovery speeds up, businesses could find themselves unable to seize new technology and market opportunities because their central system of record is holding them back.

Instead, a modern PLM platform should be able to support connections to critical technologies such as 3D, eCommerce, and shop floor control through open, documented APIs – allowing users to extend their technology footprint seamlessly. And it should enable those kinds of extensions through an accessible, low-code architecture that brings PLM into the world of interoperable cloud services.

Where some PLM vendors prefer to take a proprietary approach, and to graft additional functionality on to their platforms, others – like CGS, with the all-new BlueCherry Next PLM – recognize that no single vendor can cater for every component of a brand or retailer’s post-COVID recovery, and have created open architectures that allow PLM to become the engine at the heart of every strategy to rebuild retail stronger and more resilient – no matter which extended technologies they need.