I wasn’t planning to look at software while at SPESA, but fell into a conversation with Marie-Pascale Authie at the Lawson booth. Lawson sells Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software to a variety of industries with about 4,500 customers world-wide. “Fashion” is one of their target industries, with about 350 customers in this area, explaining why they were showing at SPESA.
ERP software suites are targeted at companies whose operations are complicated enough to benefit from some paperwork automation. Usually, those companies are much larger than a DE operation, with hundreds or thousands of employees. However, that’s not a rigid rule. Marie-Pascale indicated the smallest customer of Lawson for Fashion has 15 employees. And I want to focus on some specific features that would benefit even the smallest company engaged in just-in-time, make-to-order production with a stream of small orders.
One caveat before jumping in deep: This is a description, not a review or a recommendation. I haven’t used Lawson’s suite nor do I know what their competition is like for the fashion industry. Looking over the Fashion-Incubator members’ forum, I see references to
- Apparel Magic,
- StyleFile by PatternWorks,
- EAS (Enterprise Automation System),
- Open Bravo,
- Apache OFBiz,
- World on a Hanger, and
and I probably missed some. They all play in the ERP space, but have vastly differing functions, complexity, specialization to fashion, and prices. I am not competent to compare and contrast them. :-)
Lawson for Fashion tries to cover a lot of ground. There is a drawing module, based on AutoCAD, with special features for fashion line drawings (like pre-defined line styles for seams, shirring, etc). There is a storyboard module for communicating design themes and preliminary line sheets among designers and (prospective) buyers or your own sales force (reps). There is a fabric and trim module to manage specifications, sampling, dye work, testing, and costing. Colors and patterns defined in the fabric and trim module can be dropped into illustrations and storyboards. There is a product manager module, which seems to have similar goals as PatternWorks StyleFile. You enter the equivalent of a cutters must when you describe a style for the product manager.
There is a separate module for sourcing, where you deal with obtaining the raw materials specified in the fabric and trim module. From the description, the sourcing module comes into its full power when you have world-wide production and need to find the most cost-effective mix of vendors to supply multiple facilities. There is a line optimizer module, intended to tie design, marketing and financial considerations together so you end up with a good mix of styles you won’t go broke making. Neither of these modules is a must-have when your budget director, designer and marketing department all share one pair of shoes.
I want to spend a bit more time on the final module, workflow, with its production planning features and on some supply chain features. Let’s consider the antithesis of push manufacturing. You don’t take orders of 100’s of units two or three times a year at season. You take orders of a half-dozen whenever your merchants run low on stock. Instead of planning for two or three production runs, based on accumulated seasonal orders, you must generate many smaller cuts. For efficiency, you still have to consolidate multiple orders into cuts that share fabrics, make the goods, then sort the goods into shipments to fulfill individual orders. But you have to do this all the time, making sure you cut all the necessary fabrics, keeping track of what’s in progress, and overlapping cut, make and ship like crazy. If you run your own shop, this is a headache. If you contract out production, this can be a nightmare.
This is where good software can help. You enter orders with quantities, styles and sizes as usual, but it goes into more than just an accounting ledger. The product manager module breaks out each style into the necessary fabric and trim. The workflow module consolidates requirements from multiple orders, planning a cut for each fabric. This can be very confusing to do by hand. Consider three styles, each of which have one or two fabrics in common. So nice to let the computer keep track of this. At this point, markers could be made automatically. (Lawson doesn’t do that, I believe.)
The workflow module ties into inventory, so it doesn’t try to generate a cut requiring 100 yards when you only have 50 yards left. In fact, this should bubble back out to the order entry stage, so you can get immediate feedback about unmakeable goods. If you have sales projections, the software can generate fabric buy orders to meet the demand. Lawson’s workflow module will automatically generate bundles, for barcode tracking of production. I’m not sure how they would handle one-garment-at-a-time lean sewing cells.
Now suppose you have several available CMT contractors, but they don’t work exclusively for you. Good production planning software can keep track of inventory at each of those contractors, along with some of their basic capabilities (like table length or available equipment), and distribute your work to them as their schedules and capabilities permit. The software makes sure that you don’t inadvertently cut different parts for the same order at different contractors, and can generate inventory transfer requests (“send another roll of denim to Jack’s CMT”) as needed.
Software suites like this (should) come with excellent distribution channel support. This ranges from automatic generation of shipping labels for each order (including the right number of labels for the necessary number of cartons), management of merchant shipping requirements (what goes into cartons), warehousing functions like put-away and stock-pick, and usually integration into freight carrier and merchant shipping systems.
Frankly, I’ve just scratched the surface of a very large software suite. The intended take away message: Software exists to help you manage a very lean, just-in-time, make-to-order business if and when you need it. However, you may have to invest considerable time in researching and evaluating software suites to find one that is most effective for your situation.