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Integrate to Collaborate:The Benefits of Better Data Visibility

Integrate to Collaborate:The Benefits of Better Data Visibility
Integration is about much more than just IT. Although bridging different enterprise systems together has its apparent administrative advantages such as reducing data errors and eliminating data duplication, its role in a modern fashion business is not confined to just helping back-office processes run more smoothly.

It is understandable that many brands and retailers think about integration this way: their most immediate challenges likely coincide with integration’s most immediate benefits. This is particularly true in cases where a business has grown quickly and surpassed the limited capacity of its pre-existing, disconnected information environment. In these scenarios, manual workarounds, and extracting and re-keying data by hand would likely have become commonplace compromises. An integration project could therefore be seen as a way of reclaiming valuable time from the black hole of administrative busywork.

Although streamlining the administrative flow of data is certainly one part of the overall picture, integration is also capable of making a difference to your company’s bottom line - at almost every stage of the product lifecycle.

While the existence of system-to-system integration is far from new, the fashion industry’s rapid adoption of CAD, patternmaking, PLM, ERP, and other solutions has brought about a wave of new opportunities and challenges. Spurred by competition to invest in a broader range of process-specific solutions, brands and retailers are using these technologies to enable different teams to respond more quickly to changing market trends. The danger, however, is that these efforts may backfire if departments are unable to share and access the same pool of information.

This issue has been much debated among senior retail executives for decades, who have finally concluded that communal access to information has the potential to transform businesses far beyond the individual process level. Writing in the Harvard Business Review more than twenty years ago, Bob L. Martin (the then-CEO of Walmart’s International Division) said: “For [any] global company, the ability to take information from multiple systems and make it broadly accessible to managers and employees is critical. […] Today technology plays a role in almost everything we do, from every aspect of customer service to customizing our store formats or matching our merchandising strategies to individual markets to meet varied customer preferences.”

While retail is a broad field, the core tenets of store planning, merchandising, marketing, and mapping the customer journey will be familiar to fashion businesses of any shape and size. More often than not, these very same businesses will now have deployed different solutions to facilitate each of these processes. And as Martin predicted in 1995, true business value for employees and executives alike can be created from an information environment in which all of these different systems work in unison.

Functionally speaking, integrating two systems – whether they are small-point solutions or enterprisewide products like PLM - involves establishing a form of information interchange that allows data from chosen fields in one application to automatically populate related fields in another without manual intervention. From these essential building blocks, complex interactions between design and development, and seamless workflows from product development to sourcing can be created. The method of integration can be bespoke (a script coded by hand, inhouse, using either open or proprietary interfaces), or commercialized, where the vendor of one product sells a ready-built interface between their solution and one or more popular third-party products.

Although open, transparent interfaces – referred to as Application Protocol Interfaces, or APIs – are rapidly becoming the norm, documentation for these (which enables third parties to easily integrate their existing solutions with, or add functionality to an application) is targeted at developers rather than designers. This is why even the most common integration in fashion, between Adobe Illustrator and PLM, was created by forward-thinking vendors rather than the employees actually using the tools – because even the most transparent methods of integration are not necessarily user-friendly.

Ensuring the flow of information from one system to another – from CAD to PLM and vice versa, for instance – is just one of the basic functions of integration. Integration is about more than just bridging applications through data interfaces. The aim is to create links between the different disciplines of product design, development and preproduction, and to deliver compounded benefits by doing so.

For example, bi-directional integration between CAD and PLM not only ensures consistency of the data pertaining to individual styles, but also improves the entire lifecycles of the products themselves by preserving design integrity and communicating important metadata from the flat-sketch stage to the point of manufacture and marketing. In addition, truly best-in-class CAD to PLM integration allows creative teams, through single-sign-on functionality and intelligent automation, to create, upload, and seamlessly reuse components, color palettes, materials and more - eliminating administrative overhead and liberating creative time in one fell swoop.

Moving on from CAD, these same principles extend to virtually any aspect of creative design and product development, where the same ability to nurture inspiration and power collaboration through data integrity can deliver compounded benefits. Without integration, useful (and even essential) data lives only in the system that generated it, and is accessible only to those working with that individual solution. Color profiles, for example, can only be found in color-management tools unless those tools are integrated into PLM. Grading rules will remain in patternmaking solutions, and so on. When fully exploited, each of these data sets has utility far beyond the point of creation.

Material information, to highlight a further example, is not only essential during design and product development, but also holds considerable worth in sourcing, sampling, fitting, quality assurance and marketing. This includes color information, weight, drape, durability and a range of other data points. Without integration, these material characteristics – usually entered during the early stages of a product’s lifecycle - are typically left in a disconnected solution, and their value is limited. An integrated information environment, on the other hand, allows greater value to be extracted from that contiguous thread of data at various stages of the product lifecycle.

The purpose of integration should be thought of as twofold: it can secure essential product data by preventing it from being lost or corrupted and at the same time, it can add to that same data’s inherent value. In our example of CAD to PLM integration, people can only see the true value of the data held in Adobe Illustrator files by connecting design with the other business-critical activities it influences. These include costing, sourcing, fitting, ensuring sustainability, managing suppliers, and more.

And the same principles of accessibility and consistency can be applied to anyone, anywhere who contributes to a product’s lifecycle in any way. The information they receive and generate is of greater value because it is visible, accurate, and actionable at other stages of design, development and production. From a whole-business perspective, it now becomes clearer how integration – that continuous thread of common data – can deliver value in concrete terms, and beyond the immediate impact of easing the administrative burden. The modern, omni-channel, fashion marketplace is evolving more rapidly than even its keenest analysts can track, and brands and retailers are struggling with the increased speed of consumer demand and changing trends. Lead time for many brands and retailers, on the other hand, remain long, and the most common target in the adoption of technology in fashion is the ability to react instantly to new trends as they emerge.

But this kind of reactivity is not something any brand or retailer can expect a single department or individual process to achieve. Even with the best 2D and 3D CAD tools, the creative design process can only operate so quickly; and despite moves towards proximity sourcing, there is a hard limit on how quickly those designs can be made and shipped to retail markets. The most significant gains in lead time have come from other disciplines across the extended supply chain, working in unison to optimize the product lifecycle.

A business that prioritizes the value of the common thread that is data, configuring its integrated information around it – may be able to shave weeks or even months off its lead time, depending on complexity and product category.

From an executive perspective, with a bird’s-eye view on all these different disciplines, departments and stakeholders, fashion is a uniquely complex industry. Multinational supply chains and omni-channel retail distribution networks are standard and seasonal, geographic and size variability generate both huge numbers of SKUs (stock keeping units) and incredibly complicated product development and distribution processes. Without integration, this complexity creates more blind spots when it comes to transparency, visibility, and the ability to respond to change, than it does in perhaps any other industry. But as a result, the fragmented nature of the fashion industry means that it stands to benefit more than other industries from establishing a consistent, contemporaneous thread of data that links essential processes and carries through every iteration and variation from design to delivery.

This does not mean, however, that every conceivable data point should be integrated with a common backbone, and while an I.T. professional may be better equipped to visualize where data sets are separated, executives have a unique vantage point when it comes to charting the opportunities for linking different cultures, and bridging the right divides to enable better-informed decision-making.

We have already written about the benefits of bringing CAD and PLM together, but it is important to remember that creative tools serve a variety of different purposes beyond drawing. Despite the popularity of Adobe Creative Suite, different solutions exist for twodimensional and three-dimensional design, and designers, patternmakers, and garment technicians work with a huge variety of knitting, weaving, print design and color-management tools. Integrating all these processes together can help creative teams collaborate better and create stylistically unique collections under tight time constraints.

Beyond design tools, further common points of integration that can deliver whole-business benefits include: manufacturing hardware (cutters, spreaders, and plotters) with native file support shared with CAD and PLM; merchandise planning solutions that draw business intelligence from previous years’ sales performance; supplier management ranking tables that can be directly linked to sustainability indexes and auditing tools; and collection management and marketing modules that leverage metadata created during the earliest stages of inspiration.

Many of these points of integration have already delivered value for brands and retailers:
  • Links between patternmaking solutions and PLM have delivered greater accuracy in bills of materials; 
  • Detailed material characteristics made available beyond the point of creative design have improved communication with mills, manufacturers, and trim and packaging suppliers, allowing sourcing managers to negotiate better pricing based on sound business intelligence; 
  • Three-dimensional prototypes and virtual samples, created with 3D CAD tools and made available to view within PLM, have dramatically decreased the cost of sample creation and logistics; 
  • Successful integrations of design and development solutions with sourcing and supplier management systems have given rise to a “design-to-cost” approach, where creative teams are able to visualize the bill-ofmaterial and bill-of-labor impact of their decisions. This allows for more accurate pricing, reduced lead times, more effective production, and better positioning across international markets; 
  • CAD to PLM integration, with in-application access to components, materials, and other libraries stored within PLM, has afforded designers more time to experiment, and resulted in greater style variety within collections, as well as helping them to reach markets more quickly; 
  • Integrating PLM with ERP – the two pillars of most information environments – can provide a more holistic view of products and collections, with retail performance reports informing the styles, colors, fits and prices of future collections. Keeping data consistent from the inspiration stage to the final production stages allows marketing and retail teams to better tailor collections to their target audiences. 

These levels of integration, however, can be difficult or expensive to achieve when working across different ecosystems, where data formats, inputs, outputs, and interfaces vary widely. Many brands and retailers find considerable value in working with a vendor who offers standardized data interchange between their own design tools, patternmaking products, and PLM, avoiding the need to develop potentially costly, bespoke integrations between different families of solutions.

Whoever modern brands and retailers choose to obtain their software from, integration should not be considered just a matter of linking one technology to another, but rather an opportunity to create an information environment that aligns with whole-business goals whilst simultaneously improving the user experience, collaboration, and other important metrics at the individual process level.