First published in The PLM Report 2022, this instalment in our series of exclusive interviews explores the changing definition of definition of product lifecycle management, and why demand for PLM in fashion is still increasing.

How do you define PLM, and how has that definition changed as the fashion industry has evolved?

We feel that there are too many definitions of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), which can mean different things to different people. So, to answer this question, we recommend defining PLM based on how it has been used by retailers and brands in the fashion industry. In the world of fashion, PLM installations have been (and still is) used by retailers and brands predominantly for management of product development – e.g., capturing product specifications (techpack), collaborating, reviewing and tracking product assortments/lines, reviewing and approving samples, etc.

At CBX Software, Inc. (CBX), we feel product development is crucial but still only part of the extended supply chain that retailers and brands must get better at in order to compete in delivering products to market faster, at the right price and quality, and more than ever delivering products that are sustainable and socially responsible.

As the fashion industry continues to evolve, the leaders in the space are demanding much more from their PLM systems and this demand drives the roadmap for CBX Software as a company. CBX Cloud offers PLM and an extended supply chain management platform designed exclusively for Retailers, Brands and Trading Companies that are seeking a composable, multi-enterprise and integrated solution that extends well beyond traditional product development, materials management and supplier collaboration. The CBX Cloud footprint covers the full breadth of requirements needed to realize true extended supply chain optimization and automation from Product Concept to Delivery. Functional modules include supplier and factory management, planning, product development, product information management, sourcing, buying, order visibility management, quality, testing and compliance management, work in process (WIP) tracking, logistics and payment.

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?

For tier 1 retailers and brands today, implementing a comprehensive PLM platform is by-itself, merely table- stakes. PLM is the catalyst that informs and supports digital transformation that is now required to meet corporate initiatives related to environmental social governance (ESG), responsible sourcing, global sustainability, higher standards for product quality & safety, recycle/reuse programs, competitive pricing models and voice of the customer (VoC) feedback loops.

PLM has traditionally focused on delivering only in the early stages of product ideation, creation, and specification (material, trims, colorway, etc.). The process today must include full circle consideration of where is raw material being farmed, who is spinning the yarn, how can we ensure that those tasked with cut and sew are minimizing waste. To know this, the PLM must be integrated with supply chain mapping and visualization systems that provide dynamic feedback to the design teams during the specification finalization process.

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

While PLM solutions have been adopted for creation and management of product design/development over the recent years, retailers and brands now clearly recognized the bigger problem, the need for solutions to manage a more efficient, agile, sustainable, and global supply chain.

PLM solution providers should evolve to work hand-in- hand with extended supply chain solutions, e.g., solutions for managing of raw materials, production, inspections, shipments and visibility, finances and ESG. PLM must be a key contributor in satisfying the need to evolve digital product creation and support a more responsive and agile supply chain. At CBX we maintain a broad library of open API connectors to facilitate the dynamic exchange of data among all stakeholders responsible for bringing product to the customer. For example, as ideas, designs and specifications are emerging from the PLM, messages, alerts and requests are being exchanged with sourcing and transportation management personnel. In return comes up to date shipping cost and port conditions data as well as digital samples and factory capacity availability which helps to augment and often speed up the product finalization process being managed in the PLM system.

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

As PLM systems continue to innovate into more real-time sharable information resources rather than data repositories, task management and calendaring tools; they will contribute opportunities to assist the Brands in being exactly what the customers of today are demanding, which is more transparency, 100% authenticity and progress towards a circular economy.

As retail continues to see recovery and even growth and stability in both on-line and in-store purchases, so too are the rising rates of merchandise returns. How does PLM play a role in helping brands rethink the management of product returns?

PLM is where new product begins and as such, all data relevant to decisions on design, materials, cost, quality, etc., should ultimately find its way back in the PLM as the product journeys though its lifecycle. Returns occur for any number of reasons as is well documented by multiple industry analysts and research firms (i.e., Gartner, IDC, Incisiv) and most are controllable by retailers. Challenges such as product quality, unsubstantiated sustainability claims, product fit, wear performance and more, all contribute to return volumes. Leading brands bring this data back into their PLM and incorporate the feedback into the design and sourcing process early in the development cycle of new styles with the intent being to minimize dissatisfaction and build customer loyalty.

The phrase “digital transformation” and the need for automation of the product development and supply chain execution process in retail is top of mind and discussion daily and yet we still see so many that are slow to respond, how do you see PLM solution providers playing a role in supporting transformation?

Retailers are generally risk adverse and change for most comes slowly, but it is not for lack of capability. For instance, consider all the talk and energy regarding curbside pick up in the years leading up to March 2020. Published reports and analysis (e.g., Retail Brew 2021) shows that nearly 44% of the top 245 retailers now offer curbside pick up, which is up from just 6.9% in 2019. Implementing the process and tools required to execute on curbside pick up had been talked about for years prior to Covid 19 with little progress. The retailers needed a push and that came from a loud and outspoken customer demanding a contactless experience, and as such many retailers had a service offering stood up in days. Was it perfect, no, but as the saying goes, “perfect is the enemy of good”.

PLM and Sourcing systems need to be functional directly “out-of-the-box” and built on industry best practice that gives retailers confidence. Implementations should be swift, without customization and deliver immediate time- to-value. Solution providers that show up on day one, offering a flexible, iterative implementation methodology that drives users into production within the first 30 days of kickoff will result in faster decisions by retailers to commit to executing on their digital transformation journey.