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SJ Special Report: Shorter Product Development Cycles

Shortening product development lead-times can be a key differentiator between brands in the fast paced apparel industry. While many firms try to achieve this by adding costly staff, there are other ways to develop products faster. The simplest solution? Effective and efficient communication with external partners.

Coordination is the major stumbling block in fast product development. Converting a design into an approved product means bringing together materials, fit, construction, and performance, testing those components, and making sure they’re available in adequate supplies when a purchase order is issued to an external vendor.

By bringing all parties to the table during the design process, companies can check their product specs against the capabilities of their suppliers, and can allow supplier input on the materials and trims.

Another way to move faster is to stagger decisions on final styling, color, pricing, and purchase volume. This lets the merchandizing team tie the final design to the latest trends, without delaying the purchasing of bulk materials or the arrangement of the manufacturing partner. Done right, this means products will seem fresher to consumers, leading to more full cost sales and less discounting.

It’s possible to use these innovations to improve on the current model. Today, technical designers at brands and labels develop a sample request and tech pack for pattern makers and merchandisers, based on the brand character and the expectations of the designer.

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The merchandiser, who could be located on the other side of the world, will develop an initial pattern, add trims, and then send a sample back to the designer.

Each iteration can take weeks of time, not to mention couriering costs and the opportunity cost of delays. Adding modern communication tools to this process can dramatically reduce time and improve outputs.

Firms should start by standardizing communication across time zones and languages – there must be clear understanding among all partners of the cultures and working hours of the people they’re communicating with. Standardizing communication also means including verbal, written, and visual channels into the design process, defining a standard communication protocol, and also making sure that all participants are using the same terminology. That way, all participants can understand comments, changes, and design goals.

Good design communication also means having high quality images. These should be based on standardized form and fit models and translated into standard report layouts. Iterations should be developed using product development calendars that are in the cloud, and clear roles and responsibilities should be given to team members.

There are many tools to do this. Firms often rely on emails and attachments, but managing this paper trail can become difficult and confusing, particularly if there are many people who have to be included in decision making. PDM and PLM systems can ease the burden – they manage communication by product style, not by team member, giving all members access to the same information, live, in real time.

They are also specifically designed to allow the uploading of high-quality images. This means that once the standardized cameras and form models are in place, it should be possible to determine fit without having to courier a garment.

Designers and technical designers should share body sketches and croquis. This is particularly important when designing globally, as different cultures may use different fit expectations or body types. These sketches can also be shared through PLM or PDM, giving the patternmaker an understanding of the scale of the non-technical fit. Using a common vocabulary and an image library of details and techniques can improve communication on this front.

Standardizing measurements and points of measure is also an important part of speeding the design process. These tools often exist, but are rarely updated. Sometimes, vendors are not trained in their use, leading to wide error margins on garments.

For firms with the merchandizing muscle, it can be helpful to profile their unique customer body fit and create templates based on it. These standard body forms make it easier to see and correct mistakes at the factory level, before tying up the time of the technical designer. They can also be useful for error measurement during the manufacturing process.

Color palettes can also be standardized. This includes ensuring that computer monitors are tuned to the same color mix, and swatches and dyes used in sampling match those available for production. A tool called a spectrophotometer can be used to measure color, and common terms can be developed to describe colors.

Each of these steps should shave valuable amounts of time off the design process, culminating in a process that is weeks shorter. Once samples are finalized, factories should use computerized marker making and cut planning software. There is no sense in developing a perfect sample if the factory isn’t going to follow the pattern exactly.

Underlying all this is the goal of developing more cohesive and efficient global teams. Team members are expected to communicate on a daily basis and to know all aspects of the supply chain, which puts a priority on the kind of efficient and standardized communication this article recommends.

Best practices need to be continuously updated. Companies need a fresh and evolving mix of teamwork, tools, and techniques. This can be abetted by business analysis by consultants, or by internal performance reviews.

Building teams that work efficiently and effectively using standardization can help maximize product development, cut lead cycles, and, ultimately, increase profits without adding staff.