This is the latest installment in FN’s series “Tech Tuesdays.” Each week, FN will take a closer look at an area of digital innovation and explore how these technologies are impacting the way footwear operates. The shoe industry is known for combining heritage craftsmanship with the latest advances: This column will examine that intersection.
As the footwear industry becomes increasingly global, brands are searching for the tools that will give them total visibility over their operations. From material sourcing to manufacturing to last mile distribution, the current lifecycle of a shoe is likely to occur over thousands of miles and within multiple facilities. Monitoring these stages is therefore an increasingly complex task, but one that software can support.
Visibility goals are often tied to external pressure from consumers, who report being more interested in transparency than in previous years. This is in part due to growing interest in sustainability; in part due to shoppers wanting to purchase from companies that share their ethos; and in part due to the resale market and the need for authenticity. But there is also a very real material benefit to increased supply chain oversight.
“Without a Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system, you do not have a single source of truth,” said Matt Nakari, regional sales director and footwear specialist at PLM provider Centric Software. “And what that really means is, are all of your people using the same definitions, the same numbers, the same FOB costs, the same landed costs? Without PLM, I can guarantee you they are not. So if people have differing data, different versions of the truth, they’re not making the best decisions they can.”
For most retail businesses, but footwear in particular, there is a strong emphasis on time to market and product margins. Footwear brands are likely to have a signature style or classic collection that bring in regular customers; these styles are also likely to be remade in new colors or prints, for fast and easy catalog updates. Finetuning the production of these styles is therefore critical, especially when manufactured in multiple places.
Then there’s the human component of production; brands need to maintain consistency across their production lines, which can prove particularly challenging when operating across multiple geographies. A growing number of companies are also making commitments that ensure a safe work environment and compliance with any labor laws. This requires insight into each stage of manufacturing and also a cohesive view across all factories.
“Shoes are typically made by hand,” said Mark Burstein, president and chief strategy officer at supply chain platform NGC. “Some robotic automation is available, but different production lines making the same shoe can provide different results. Production visibility from cut to stitch to last, plus correct packaging, is critical for proper customer service. Real-time supply chain platforms can provide visibility into the timing and cadence of production events, allowing companies to deploy internal teams to monitor critical points in the product lifecycle.”
Currently, it is common to track all this information across multiple spreadsheets and documents. While this may work on a day-to-day level, Nakari warns of the degradation of information that can occur as each team works with the data independently, for their own needs. If this happens by multiple teams, across different use cases, it is likely that the final calculations will vary dramatically, despite using the same original figures.
A PLM system can simplify this process, but might intimidate companies who are wary of adding yet another layer of technology to their business. The industry has been vocal about the value of data in building better strategies yet this can be challenging to implement without sufficient resources. Fortunately, by introducing a PLM system, brands might be able to alleviate existing technology silos and simplify their technology infrastructure.
“It’s not about adding on a solution for these small customers; it’s about removing solutions,” said Nakari. “When you put PLM in, you’re getting rid of your SharePoint. You’re getting rid of the server where you dump all your designs. You’re getting rid of your multiple, multiple Excel spreadsheets and so many PowerPoints. And each of those represents a different source of truth; when you get that single source of truth, you’re getting rid of multiple systems.”
An efficient system is also likely to eliminate physical waste, due to the reduced need for product samples and the ability to standardize data within the designs, before a physical sample is manufactured. For companies with big sustainability goals, a PLM system can play a large role in manifesting those. Beyond the waste level, greater insight into production can also reveal more opportunities for sustainable improvement.
“A dedicated PLM integrates all suppliers, regardless of tier, into a single platform,” said Burstein. “Traceability is the runway that leads to sustainability. Utilizing cloud platforms within the supply chain ecosystem will allow brands and retailers to measure their supply chain’s environmental impact and make better choices when sourcing materials and suppliers.”