First published in The PLM Report 2022, this instalment in our series of exclusive interviews explores how PLM has played a large role in enabling DPC (Digital Product Creation), as well as supply chain resilience and agility. PLM, says Stuart, has an absolutely critical role to play in reshaping the industry to be more sustainable, more intelligent, more efficient, and more transparent.

Do you believe the role of technology – and especially PLM – has changed as a result of the disruption of the last two years? And how has that altered people’s expectations for enterprise solutions?

I think the definition of PLM has been constantly evolving for the entire lifespan of the acronym – not just over the course of the pandemic. What brand, retail, and manufacturing customers want PLM to do, and the directions in which technology vendors develop it, has always been driven by the evolution of the consumer market and by commercial priorities.

What’s changed today is that the potential process coverage of PLM has grown dramatically. Every modern PLM platform has a common core – the fundamentals required to take a product from concept to approval – but each of them specialises in one or more other areas, depending on the provider’s background. In practice, this is making a concrete definition of PLM harder than ever to pin down, because each platform starts from that centre and then extends outwards in different directions.

At Coats Digital we take that idea of specialisation to heart, and our PLM platform has very much been shaped by our decades of expertise and our deep presence in the international supply chain. Having been an instrumental part of the digital transformations of many of the largest global fashion suppliers and manufacturers – outfitting them with best-in-breed technology and expert services – we approach PLM from a different perspective from other vendors who have focused on brand and retail applications exclusively.

As businesses of all shapes are now discovering, though, the supply chain is a critical component of what makes the fashion industry tick, and we are being approached on a regular basis by brands and retailers who need to drastically improve the agility, transparency, and resilience of their sourcing and manufacturing operations.

That’s a requirement we’re ready to respond to, because our goal remains to take PLM closer than ever into the supply chain, and beyond core design and development functionality – which Vision PLM supports – we have worked hard to extend the solution footprint into areas that can power entirely new levels of visibility and responsiveness past the point of development, as well as bringing the full range of stakeholders together.

So the pandemic hasn’t changed our long-term strategy, or redefined what we believe PLM should do, but it has shown that the emphasis we have always placed on extending its footprint into the supply chain was the right direction.

What position do you see Coats Digital occupying in the PLM landscape for apparel, footwear, and retail?

People at every level of the apparel value chain now need to interact with PLM – whether that’s directly or indirectly. Individual disciplines like design, development, sourcing, and production can no longer operate in isolation, and it’s vitally important that all those different processes are supported by solutions that cater to their needs as well as a common data foundation and a source of truth that sits underneath them all.

We believe that’s the role that PLM should play for both internal brand users and their value chain partners, and we pride ourselves on having built a portfolio of solutions that perform where they’re needed – from brand headquarters to factory floor – as well as integrating seamlessly with VisionPLM.

From factory capacity planning and material yield optimisation to labour standardisation and fact-based costing, Coats Digital is a complete technology partner who can provide a seamless pathway from PLM to more comprehensive supply chain digital transformation.

Where do you believe PLM sits in the broader technology ecosystem for a brand or retailer? What does it deliver as a standalone solution, and what can it enable in terms of digital transformation elsewhere in the enterprise?

In its own right, PLM can be incredibly powerful for the businesses that implement and use it effectively. The results of centralising product data, allowing disconnected teams to collaborate, and managing product development calendars have been demonstrated many times.

But it’s also been shown just as many times that isolated solutions – especially those that hold a wealth of information and process knowledge – are holding back broader transformation. When we engage with an existing customer or a new one, we always ensure that we’re working with them on a digital transformation strategy with PLM at its core, rather than a PLM project with extensions.

With that mindset, we believe in looking at what a brand or retailer needs to achieve in order to safeguard its supply chain, improve its sustainability credentials, prioritise profitability, or any number of other metrics that matter to them. With those capabilities as the goal, we then see PLM as being the glue that holds the wider enterprise ecosystem together, and that unlocks the compounded benefits of connecting all its different components.

Those benefits are then found everywhere: in the virtualisation of design, development and product approval; in the shift from sustainability as a marketing strategy to evidence-backed environmental and ethical commitments; and in intelligent costing and supply chain planning. We are fully focused on making sure that our PLM platform not only supports that vision, but that our customers are able to realise it through links to our extended portfolio of solutions and to best-in-class applications developed by our growing list of technology partners.

Perhaps the two technology opportunities that have been accelerated the most by the disruption of the last two years are digital product creation (DPC) and supply chain resilience and agility. How do you believe PLM contributes to those goals?

Both of these were high priorities before the pandemic, and PLM has already played a large role in enabling them, but the last two years have demonstrated just how closely interlinked they are. In fact we see them as inseparable: digital product design and development is the key to responsiveness to trend and market changes, and to unlocking supply chain flexibility and resilience.

During the pandemic, it became clear just how quickly long-established strategic supply chain relationships could crumble. We all know that designing in 3D allowed brands to continue to test concepts without being able to source physical samples, but digitising the processes of creative design and technical development also gave those businesses the agility to either quickly restore production relationships when circumstances allowed, or to rapidly establish new ones.

To put it another way: a digital backbone is, realistically, the only way to deliver digital transformation of the extended value chain to the extent that’s truly required. From my perspective, the long-established culture of “brand versus vendor” is not fit for the present, let alone the future, and a major part of moving on from that legacy is going to be replacing historic systems and processes with new technology, new methods, and globally-recognised standards. The industry is waking up to the realisation that not only is it time to integrate individual software solutions – it’s time to acknowledge that stakeholders at every stage of the product lifecycle need to be part of the same digital ecosystem, with PLM as a central pillar.

How do you see PLM supporting fashion’s wider recovery and its ongoing digital transformation over the next 2-3 years?

I see PLM’s biggest challenge – and its greatest opportunity – as being how effectively it can close the gap between supply and demand. So much of the fashion industry’s ability to recover from the disruption of the pandemic, and to rebuild itself to be agile and responsive enough for the future, is going to hinge on how well it can harmonise data and orchestrate processes not only in design and development, but throughout the concept-to-consumer lifecycle.

PLM, then, has an absolutely critical role to play in reshaping the industry to be more sustainable, more intelligent, more efficient, and more transparent. By serving as the central hub that enables real-time sharing of accurate, actionable data and assets whenever and wherever they’re needed, PLM has the potential to be one of the most important technology investments that brand and retail businesses make post-pandemic.

For companies that are evaluating the market right now, that should be a guiding principle. Rather than looking for a standalone solution to one or more isolated problems, I’d encourage them to stand back and really evaluate what it means to maximise the value of PLM as part of a much wider digital transformation, outside its traditional limitations. There has never been a better time to take that view, and the technology is ready to respond.