Strategies and software solutions for managing product development have come a long way in recent years as apparel manufacturers and retailers have put more of their creative design and pre-production processes under the microscope, seeking to streamline them.
Yet based on comments shared by participants in Apparel's 2nd Annual Product Development Management (PDM) Roundtable discussion, the industry still has a way to go to achieve optimum levels of efficiency. Here are some highlights from that discussion.
Dealing with New Demands on Product Development
Apparel: How have the product development teams and processes at your companies evolved in the past year to accommodate new demands?
GARNER (RUSSELL): All of product development is being pushed toward shorter development cycles. . We are currently experimenting with the use of Microsoft Project 2000 as a tool to monitor the development process and try to see if we can align some things that can be done in the process at the same time rather than have separate dates. .
Several years ago, we were using just an internal data system for managing specifications, and we now have moved to the Lectra Gallery system to help us manage specifications across the internal plants we deal with, as well as 807 plants and other global sources. In our athletic area, we have centralized one area that has responsibility for providing specifications. . That has helped us tremendously with the time frames for getting specs out and being able to post our specs on the Web. We can now have specs out there in a matter of minutes from any place in the country.
LILLEY (WOOLRICH): To deal with even higher peaks and lower valleys . we have intensified our cross training. We also are searching the marketplace for technologies. We are particularly interested in 3-D solutions and how they are being used in the development process. . We feel as though we've pretty well squeezed our development process as hard as we can, and realize that today's successful marketplace will depend more and more on how fast we can take that product from development to the customer.
SELTZER (CAPITAL MERCURY): One thing that we've worked on is software for color processing completely over the Internet. The software reads the colors, and talks to the buyers, and certainly has cut our lead times tremendously from the start of fabric development through the color approval process. Going hand in hand with that, we have been working on our CAD programs and processes so that they can "talk" to mills and give them stitch counts, construction details, etc. That has shortened our lead times as well. And then we coordinate all that with a tech pack. When all that goes together, and it's all computerized, it saves a lot of time, energy and effort. It also . hopefully minimizes errors and incorrect processes.
HOOD (LEVI): To reduce cycle times and increase turn times, we've tried to establish some achievable parameters. For example, what level of product innovation can actually be produced in the target amount of time to launch product? Or, if we have a product identified that needs to be on the floor in 90 days, maybe we can innovate new fit and styling, but maybe not a new fabric and finish. Conversely, if we need to innovate a fabric finish, we might use an existing fit and style. Defining these parameters and letting our merchandise and design group know what is achievable and successful has been good for us. In terms of changes to accommodate expansion into new categories and channels, another thing we've tried to ensure is that we have accurate metrics on how much workload people can handle in our pattern and engineering tech areas . so that we're able to swing capabilities over and establish as much of a versatile group as we can [to work on the project].
Apparel: Can you describe your prototyping processes in terms of how you communicate pattern data and changes with your global sources?
LILLEY (WOOLRICH): We create many of our original pattern sets within our product development here at Woolrich, but . whenever we do ask our global sources to provide a prototype, we ask that they send the paper pattern or a tracing of the pattern to us along with the prototype. We have found this to be very beneficial. We have a fair amount of complexity on our garments. Some garments may have 130 to 150 operations. We have found that having the original paper pattern is helpful in communicating back changes that we want to do. .
In some cases we will exchange this pattern data electronically, when we are dealing with sources in those places of the world where the technology exists. We utilize zip files to send the pattern pieces back and forth. But in other cases we work with an actual physical set of pattern papers, which obviously adds considerable delay as well as additional expense. But the expense isn't too bad as a direct expense when the pattern is accompanied [by the] original prototype that's coming in to you in most cases anyway.
SELTZER (CAPITAL MERCURY): We also have the patterns sent back from the factories. One of the problems that we have is that where we do some of our sourcing, it's not computerized. Patterns are all hand [created], marked and graded, so we end up with paper patterns that are not able to be transferred back and forth over the Internet unfortunately. We may be able to send them something over the Internet, but on the back end, it's not reciprocated.
WALKER (STRIKLEY STREET/URBAN SYSTEMS): In some cases, I generate the patterns myself and send them to the contractors overseas, which cuts down on a lot of the time and sampling process.
PIPER (ZERO RESTRICTION OUTERWEAR): We generate all of our own patterns and send them electronically to the contractors. We found that working with contractors that didn't have those [computerized pattern making] capabilities slowed us down so much that it's one of the things that we look for in a contractor. We're working with a lot of technical fabrics and production technology in our garments . so we're generally looking for contractors that have all those capabilities and unfortunately can't work with contractors who are not buying into being able to move their information digitally.
HOOD (LEVI): In our global source base we also have contractors that will send us [patterns]. We mostly receive our patterns back from them on hard copies that they have traced off. We are able to send DXF files to our contractors. They have to do a conversion because we're in a software that not everybody has. Or periodically, if it's a source base that cannot receive it, we will send a hard printout of the pattern, which of course is time-consuming on our end, especially if you have one product being produced in five different locations. That's a little bit of a frustration, and we do look for contractors who have the capability to make the conversions, but to be honest with you, we're really looking at the versatility of the source base, the cost that they can provide and a number of other items. So we can't restrict it just to the technology that they have.
WOLOSHEN (NYGARD): In October 1998 we launched an in-house-developed system called "Remote ICS," or "Internet Commerce for Suppliers," that through the Internet automatically sends sketches, specs, bills of materials, raw material requirements, etc. to our suppliers. At the same time we were sending patterns/markers attached to e-mails to suppliers. This reduced our lead times by a minimum of three to four weeks.
Apparel: There has been much development in the area of 3-D imaging tools. What do you find most interesting? What holds the greatest potential for your business?
GARNER (RUSSELL): We have some very expensive garments, and making actual prototypes is very expensive, especially if you're just doing them in different colorways as a development tool to give the merchandise group an initial look. [3-D technologies offer the potential] to give them a better idea of what they're looking for before putting cut and sew time into the garment, and also investing in the fabrics and the trims that it takes to make those prototypes.
HEARD (ARCHETYPE): We are at the preliminary stages of looking [at new 3-D technologies]. We constantly are chasing fit issues to be sure that we have consistency across a very wide variety of vendors that we have. We think some of this [3-D technology] could give us the ability to have totally identical forms and to do more digital and 3-D imaging through the Web in lieu of waiting for the next Fed-Ex pack to come in from across the water.
WALKER (STRIKLEY STREET/URBAN SYSTEMS): I do a lot of presentations to vendors to show them how the product looks, and the 3-D imaging is very good for that. You can use a computer CD-ROM to actually show how [the garment] turns and everything. This can eliminate some of the cost in terms of having to make duplicates in the sampling process.
Apparel: Along those lines, is there a trend toward more collaboration with retail customers at the product development stage, and how is this affecting how you go to market?
SELTZER (CAPITAL MERCURY): On the back end, it seems that we're all able to work [virtually], whether that be 3-D imaging or CAD work. Retailers still are not grasping any of that, and they still ultimately want to see a sample. They can't or won't visualize. They won't commit to making a purchase on any particular product unless they're actually seeing a sample. This hinders the whole [drive for] quick lead time and quick turn time from a developmental standpoint or from a retail standpoint because if you still have to end up getting the actual garment in hand before you can get an order, it just kills your timing.
HOOD (LEVI): In our business, which is so heavily driven by fabric and finish variations, not only do [retail buyers] want to see the garment, they want to see the exact iteration that it's going to be in. So we'll end up producing not only one product but the entire color range or finish range in which it's being offered - in order to sell it. They also like to know that this is a proven style. We're fortunate that we have some Levi's stores where we're able to test some models and . provide some sort of sell-through background [in order to give the retailers] some sort of data on whether it's a valuable new style. We spend a lot of time making patterns and prototypes and trying to get them to market very quickly. . The real thing is what sells.
SCROGGINS (DELTA APPAREL): I completely agree. The customer wants to see up front what they're going to get. I spend a lot of time trying to schedule prototypes and pre-production samples to get out to our customers. It's a good system in that I do have a signature so that we don't get any surprises once production does hit as far as color, fit, measurements, specs, etc. Our pre-production samples are treated just as production [samples] would be.
VENABLE (ALEXIS PLAYSAFE): Our customers want to see a sample, and we too use all our pre-production samples as production samples. We manufacture most of what we produce, and we have one that is a perfect sample that goes out to the sewing floor. [It's] just amazing to me that all of the retailers still want to see a sample - to touch it and feel it. One thing that we've also seen is that they've requested to see how the garment would be presented on the retail floor. They want us to show them what it would look like on a fixture, and how it would be merchandised. We do a lot of CAD work for them too.
LERNER (GOODY'S): As a retailer, the reason why we like to see the garments is because from a product development point of view, it's a safety net for us to make sure the buttons are correct, the thread is correct, etc. The bottom line is that our job is to be [fully] responsible for the [complete] garment. If it's not correct [at the sample stage], then it at least gives us that opportunity to make a change. Sometimes you may have delivery problems and have to make a change at that point. But it's really a safety net for all the manufacturers.
PIPER (ZERO RESTRICTION OUTERWEAR): We're very fortunate to have domestic production as well as offshore production. We consider at least the first year for all of our new products as sort of a test year. We're able to work that here in the plant and get it out to our customers and to our wear testers so that we can develop until we're fully satisfied with it. We also work with the pro shops on the green-grass level until we're completely satisfied with the product and our customers are happy. Then we move it to offshore manufacturing.
WOLOSHEN (NYGARD): We use digital photos extensively to communicate with suppliers, retailers and quality control (QC) personnel. Gone are the days of waiting for garments to be sent to us before we could see QC issues - weeks wasted. Now, if there is an issue, the photo is immediately sent to the appropriate department, [a decision] is made, and the appropriate action is taken. Face-to-face training has to be done for the success of implementing these technological initiatives.
Through in-house-developed technology, we are better training retailers [to whom we provide private label merchandise] that they do NOT need that physical garment to write the order. It is still a struggle, but it is a win-win for both the retailer and manufacturer as the lead time can be significantly reduced on both sides.