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PLM Is a Journey, Not a Race

Looking for a PLM provider? Don’t waste time talking to a technology company that says its software can be implemented in a matter of weeks.

“That’s a dream,” said Mark Harrop, founder and chief executive of WhichPLM and formerly of Microdynamics, Gerber and PTC, speaking Tuesday at Lectra’s Fashion Forward event in Bordeaux, France. “It’s not possible.”

He would know, having spent almost four decades working to further the cause of PLM (product lifecycle management), before it even had a name.

“PLM means joining all the systems that we have within our entire supply chain and joining them together to provide value, to provide speed, to provide efficiency and really to make things work that much better,” he said, calling the implementation process a “transformational” journey. “And once you get to what you think is the so-called end, you start again. It’s continuous. It’s a 360-degree journey.”

That’s why he’s peeved when he hears people say they implemented PLM in 12 weeks, or when a tech company touts its quick-start, out-of-the-box solution. There’s no silver bullet—it can take years to do it the right way.

“We spend weeks, if not months, planning the scope, the design, the plan of action, and if you do this right your journey should look at the entire eco system of your business,” Harrop explained. “That means if you’re working in Oregon and you work internationally around the world, you go to those countries and understand what systems they have, you understand the culture, you understand why they’re not able to use their technology and you break down those barriers. Only then will you arrive at this big picture and there’s probably a timeline of several years.”

Similarly, fashion companies shouldn’t consider a PLM system that isn’t fashion-specific.

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“It’s critical that the vendor speaks our language, that they understand what a marker is, what a lay plan is, everything that we speak about. I need that vendor to understand the supply chain,” Harrop said. “I don’t just want that vendor to understand the front-end retail bit where we produce a PDF and send it to the other side of the world.”

According to Harrop, there are 40-plus technology companies supplying PLM solutions to more than 2,150 companies worldwide today. That sounds low but as the cost of ownership has come down and the breadth of services offered has broadened, implementation has picked up. In fact, there were 214 new PLM implementations in the year ended Mar. 31, 30 percent of which were in the U.S., 28 percent in Europe and, notably, 23 percent in Asia.

“Every year I put my neck on the block by predicting PLM sales around the world and around four years ago I said Asia was now ready to take off and I’m pleased to say that prediction for Asia came true: it went from 3 percent to 11 percent and now 23 percent in three years. So we really are up and running over there,” he said.

Just as implementation is a continuous journey, the software is always evolving, too. Harrop highlighted some key changes he anticipates in the coming years.

“Planning will become more dynamic,” he said, describing a real-time dashboard, similar to what an air traffic controller at an airport has. “You want to know what’s happening so you can decide what to cut, what to make, in what color, what size, what everything.”

In addition, he sees search capabilities becoming more like Google and improved accuracy in the bill of materials (BoM) and the bill of labor (BoL), while artificial intelligence (AI) will aid sustainable sourcing.

“Imagine if we have key suppliers of components—YKK zippers, threads and so on—and as they’re designed they dynamically appear in the cloud, so you know when you’re looking for a zip it’s the latest design and the information is flooding in permanently,” he said. “That is the art of possible.”

As for which PLM system is the best on the market today, Harrop’s answer is simple: it depends.

“What’s your ailment? Once I understand your problem I’ll be able to diagnose and help you get to a shortlist, and from the shortlist you can make your own decision,” he said. “There are better solutions and there are better classes of solutions, but there isn’t a ‘best’ one.”