The Rise of the Sewbots

US-based firm SoftWear Automation has announced trials of a machine that can make up to 1,142 Tee Shirts in an 8 hour shift, as many as 17 human line workers.  And of course machines such as these can work 24-hours a day, do not need breaks and holidays, and do not raise the same ethical concerns as human workers.  One of the key breakthroughs is the ability of the Sewbot to handle relatively stretchy, knitted fabrics, using machine vision to guide the fabric as it moves around to make sure seams stay straight.

OK, tee shirts are a relatively simple construction, but the firm has moved on from pillow cases, to now being able to make most of a pair of jeans. The pace of development in AI, visual recognition and materials handling means that it won’t be too long before the vast majority of high volume, repetitive garments are manufactured locally at a price that beats offshore volume manufacturing, freight and duty costs.

So what, Sewbot?

This type of technology will have a huge effect on global commerce, as it becomes cheaper to produce close to the market than it is to manufacture in the Far East and import, with the associated freight and duty costs.  A return to manufacturing in the UK for example, but with comparatively low employment needs and more compact space requirements.  And for the low cost labour countries, a massive loss of employment as local semi-skilled roles are replaced by robot labour closer to the market.  There will still be a market for sewing more complex, low volume products but even this can be expected to decline, albeit over a longer timescale.

Reduced international freight might be another casualty, although this would have a number of green/carbon benefits with lower garment-miles.  And a return to local manufacturing may also impact other supporting industries, weaving and knitting locally may become more viable, as well as component production closer to point of use.

Vertical integration

And what about design-led, branded companies? Manufacturing locally can give them the speed to market that fast fashion needs, without the high labour costs, skill shortages and low volume of current UK producers.  In some ways, the circle will be completed in the next few years, having gone from UK Manufacturing => Import & distribution => Multi-Channel => UK Manufacturing in a cycle lasting 40 years or so.  And what comes next?  No matter what the future holds, STYLEman ERP, PLM, WMS, BI and Mobile.will be ready to support your business in the future.

More information on Sewbot here,  more information on STYLEman here

What will happen to our High Streets and Malls?

Every week brings news of more store closures, as retailers struggle to maintain profitability of their bricks and mortar stores in the face of competition from e-commerce.   Several Department Stores including M&S, Debenhams, Mothercare, Waitrose, Wilko, Countrywide and Tesco have already announced reductions in their store numbers, and chains including Coast, Oasis, Warehouse, Monsoon, Banana Republic, Brantano, Jones, Joy and Blue Inc have all reduced or closed their retail stores in the last three months alone, some after sale or administration.   The increasing number of closures should have downward pressure on rents, but Landlords have yet to recognise the lower value of their properties that low demand dictates.  Until this market correction occurs, High Streets and malls are struggling to fill empty units.

There is no doubt that on the fringes of the High Street, poorly located retail units will be allowed to convert to residential.  It’s a simple way for councils to meet the need for increasing housing stock while maintaining council tax revenue and maintaining the quality of a more compact commercial centre.  It also dovetails neatly with the need for smaller accommodation for singles.  So the size of the retail High Street will shrink, but will not disappear completely.  A number of types of retailers require a physical presence, such as hairdressers, opticians, nailbars and other personal services, vets, restaurants, convenience stores and antiques.  And there is a future for Independents who can find a good location, have a strong USP and who can negotiate a low rent.  Good service, advice, instant availability of products and offering something different will all be key drivers in the survival of quality retail.

Malls also face an uncertain future, since once a critical mass of stores close, it can descend into a spiral of decline.  The US offers some interesting examples of malls trying to re-invent themselves, with several examples of malls becoming primarily food and entertainment destinations, with incidental retail stores.  Some have gone further, converting to small towns with development of much of the retail into residential space.  These can be particularly attractive since most out-of-town malls are well connected to transport networks.

In addition to increasing e-commerce sales, there are also a couple of other retail trends in the offing.  All too often, shops act as showcases for products, with consumers finding what they like and going home to buy it for the cheapest price on-line.  Some car manufacturers are already adapting to this kind of retail by deliberately making “digital experience” stores (Audi’s VR Store for example) located in shopping malls rather than traditional car showrooms, and more brands are likely to head down this road.  There is also a rise in the number and variety of services we can subscribe to.  As well as entertainment (Spotify, Netflix, Sky, etc) there are food services offering fruit and veg, ingredients packs for home cooking, and grazing boxes.  Amazon has started to offer clothing styling tips with Echo Look, and Amazon is also becoming a major player in apparel sales.  It doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to move from this to subscribing for your wardrobe.

Inside the stores, there will be evolutionary advances in the in-store technology: the integration between on-line and physical retailer experience, cross platform and cross-store loyalty, personalisation, social media shopping and fulfilment, but there are a few areas where paradigm changes may occur.  For example, self-driving cars will have a huge effect on traffic, transport and parking.  Why pay for parking in a town centre when you can send the car away to the suburbs, later summoning it to collect you.  3D printing (both for articles and food) will have a massive effect on the movement and storage of goods, and domestic 3D printing or its derivatives may mean that many items can simply be downloaded.  The timing of when some of these developments will impact commercially is relatively uncertain, but there is no doubt that the appearance and experience of shopping is in for a major shake-up in the medium term.

Geo-blocking

Geo-blocking is to be outlawed in the EU, which means that you will have to treat consumers in all 28 EU member states as local purchasers of your product, you won’t be able to discriminate based on their location.  However, you’ll be under no compulsion (yet) to actually deliver to all EU countries, it’s up to the purchaser to organise collection if you don’t.  The draft law means that online sellers will not be able to discriminate against consumers with regard to general terms and conditions, including prices, on the basis of their nationality, place of residence or even their temporary location.

In addition, you’ll have to get the user’s consent in routing their transaction to a localised service, for example if the user visits your .com website from France, you’ll have to get their permission before routing them to their domestic .fr website.   The geo-blocking ban also covers a variety of other products and services, including music streaming, books, entertainment ticket booking, car rentals and many other items.   Ending geo-blocking is a priority for the European Commission as it tries to create a single market across the EU bloc, but many industries argue that they tailor their prices to specific domestic markets.

“What we want is simple: to end discrimination in the single market, based on people’s nationality, residence or temporary location,” said Roza Thun, the MEP who is steering the legislation through the European Parliament.  “Our work aims at a gradual opening of the European market for consumers and for traders by giving them clear rules. Consumers will have better access to goods and services online and for traders it will be less burdensome to sell to consumers from different member states”,

The committee’s vote this week gives its negotiating team, led by Ms Thun, a mandate to start three-way talks with the Council and the Commission, with a view to reaching an agreement on the final law. The mandate was approved by 31 votes to 2, with 1 abstention.

Further reading here.

9 benefits to expect when upgrading your computer system

login_imageIf you haven’t changed your computer systems recently, you’ll probably be quite surprised (and hopefully pleased) by some of the features that are considered standard these days.  Modern software has evolved to keep up with changes in hardware, networking and devices.  Some of the more obvious benefits include:

  • Access anywhere – regardless of how you choose to host your system, you’d expect to be able to access it from anywhere in the world these days, and to be able to offer access to your trading partners both up and down the supply chain.   Embedding a modern system within the business in this way can reduce the administration workload and increase accuracy, as duplication of effort and transcription errors are dramatically reduced.
  • Security – one consequence of opening up your system is the need to secure it from unauthorised access, and to audit all data changes throughout.  In the case of security, you’d expect the system to be very “fine-grained” in terms of allowing access to, visibility of and update of data on a field-by-field basis.  And in terms of auditing, you’d expect to be able to track the changes made to a piece of data, and also all changes made by an individual user.
  • Mobile access – over the last few years smartphones and tablets have taken over from PCs as the most common platform to access information.  Note that the key word here is access, PCs are still the most common data entry method, and face it – you wouldn’t want to use a smartphone keyboard for entering a lot of data.  But these devices can be very useful for ad-hoc enquiries on the move.
  • Integration – most modern systems are capable of importing and exporting information to and from common third-party systems, both within your business and with your business partners in Shipping, logistics, fulfilment etc.  Integration for the most part should be a data mapping exercise, and not require custom programming.
  • Data density – monitors have come a long way since fuzzy VGA graphics on a CRT screen at 640 x 480 pixels.  Most monitors are now full HD TV format (1920x 1080, or more than 6 VGA screens simultaneously), with Quad HD (4K) monitors starting to be affordable for data entry users (4k monitors are equivalent to more than 24 VGA screens!).  And power users are often seen with multiple monitors on their desks.  This richness of pixel density translates into applications that can put a huge volume of data in front of you, and modern applications will have features to highlight the areas you need to look at, to make them stand out of the crowd.
  • Reporting – since modern systems can put more data in front of the user, it can replace a number of the simpler reports that may have been required previously.  The ability to sort, group and sub-total in real time on the screen and then export to Excel, PDF or printer if a hard copy is required should be the least you expect from your new system.
  • A richer user experience – you’d expect to be able to upload and attach images, tech packs, contract T&Cs, shipping documentation and more so that your system becomes the single point of reference for all the company information.  Disk space has never been cheaper, and disk storage itself is a robust storage medium, particularly used in fault-tolerant (Raid) structures, or in the cloud.
  • User Interfaces – there is no doubt that for data entry tasks, keyboard input is the fastest and most efficient way of getting data into a computer system.  But increasingly, common interface standards can mean that the data can be imported rather than re-keyed.  Where modern interfaces win is in their data browsing and enquiry responses.  Typically, less than 10% of data accesses are to update, the vast majority are for enquiry purposes,
  • Forms – even in our relatively paperless environments, if you want to get paid you’ll still have to send an invoice, even when this is done via email.  So a document Is still required, and you should expect tools to be allow you to redesign, update and change the document formats, logos and T&Cs without needing custom software changes.

Of course, there will be many other advantages in replacing your systems, but in this post we’re just considering those which are generally applicable.

If you have any comments on the articles in this blog, please email us here.

Brexit – the first 100 days

Hat, Coat, Brexit

Three months after the vote for Brexit, there seems to be a queue of politicians and business leaders eager to point out that not a lot has changed, so what were we all worried about?

The effects of Brexit will not be measured in a few months.  They will become noticeable by the start of 2017 and will rumble on for years, probably tens of years.  Trade agreements will be negotiated.  The form they take may dominate future headlines, but in reality these are a sideshow.  Willing buyers will always be connected with willing sellers in some form, and prices and duty rates will dictate commercial viability.

The real damage is already happening, but it will take some time for the effects to show.  Of particular concern are:

  • Financial Services – The UK is a service economy (78% of GDP), and financial services are a huge part of our exports (net £60bn). The City of London is the financial capital of the World at the moment, a situation that’s unlikely to continue indefinitely when London is outside the EU and Frankfurt is at the heart of it. The transition will not be immediate, but Frankfurt will eclipse London on a 10-20 year timeframe, with New York the global centre.   Over 500 banks have offices in London for easy access to the City, but how many will remain when New York is the global financial centre?
  • Weak currency – Over the coming months, an effective devaluation of sterling against the Dollar and Euro of around 10% will feed through into import costs; most companies have covered their short term currency exposure and bunkered their fuel, but when FX contracts are consumed and the stockpiles dwindle, there’ll be a matching rise in imported goods and raw material costs. So be prepared for your phone, travel and clothing to rise, along with imported food.  We import most of our fuel and the OPEC agreement currently being concluded will restrict supply – both of these factors will lead to a considerable fuel (and therefore goods transport) price rises next year.  So expect inflation to rise, and hence mortgage rates.  A much vaunted return of British manufacturing will not help much either – most manufacturers rely on imported raw material and/or manufacturing machinery.
  • Global Manufacturers – One of the major reasons companies like Toyota and Nissan opened manufacturing plants in the UK was easy access to Europe. Now, if they contemplate expanding their manufacturing operations in Europe, where should they invest?  In the UK, with uncertain access to the EU market or in Poland?
  • European HQs – And what of US, Chinese or Indian companies wanting to expand their businesses into Europe, where should they establish their Headquarters? And for companies who’ve already opened their HQs in the UK – many of those will be discussing contingency plans to move back into the larger, single market.  And countries like Ireland, Luxemburg and Lichtenstein with favourable corporation tax schemes will be offering all sorts of incentives to relocate.  Yes, the cut in UK Corporation tax rates will help, but then the lost revenue will have to be recovered from somewhere.
  • Stability and Business Confidence – All businesses like a stable environment – it makes trading less risky and easier to forecast. Since no-one can predict what a post-Brexit Britain will look like, companies will pull back from investment and expansion, look to cut costs and conserve their resources.

So to summarise, expect higher inflation, the currency to continue to weaken against the Euro and US Dollar, unemployment to rise, taxes to rise, and more government spending cuts as it tries to balance the books.  So where does that leave businesses in the UK?

The government is very keen for us to export more, but frankly I don’t think companies have been waiting to be told.  But this is a good time to have a hard look at your business and outline some ideas for the future.  It may be worth establishing a subsidiary within the EU (Ireland anyone?) to keep a foot in the single market, and to have a look your supply chain.  Making in Eastern Europe may have been a good idea while we’re in the EU, but if goods are subjected to new tariffs, then perhaps Turkey and Morocco are more attractive.  And if you’re sourcing mainly in USD, then building sales in USD is a great way of offsetting currency risk.  If you already have an e-commerce presence, then expanding this to include the US is relatively low cost.  Plus your prices will now look 10% cheaper.   Depending on where you sell to, it may be worth holding some stock within the EU, especially if you’re making there in the first place.  Belgium and Holland are popular choices here.

Finally, are your systems ready for Brexit?  Will they support multiple companies, VAT registrations in different countries, multiple warehouses holding stock at different costs, flexible costings for whatever new duties and tariffs are required?  Our STYLEman systems will cater for this and more, and you can rest assured that whatever changes in legislation and trade patterns are needed, STYLEman will cater for it.  More details at styleman.com or call +44 116 291 6666.

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLM – a Bluffers Guide

PLM keysChoosing and installing a PLM system is very different to other solutions that you may have implemented within your business.  Accounting and Warehouse Management systems are designed to fit a narrow, well-defined problem across businesses of all types.  Product Lifecycle Management systems address a much more nebulous problem, which is harder to define and therefore more difficult to solve.  This is often why PLM implementations fail; not through system shortcomings, but through mismatched expectations.

In this article, we pick through some of the questions to ask yourself when considering a PLM solution.

Do I really need a PLM system?  If your collection is relatively small, or has a high proportion of repeating styles, or is currently managed by one or two people, the answer is probably not.  Development of small collections, or minor updates to a core product set can be managed quite adequately on spreadsheets.  For PLM to be of benefit, there needs to be a problem to be addressed, such as a large collection generating a lot of data points, a large development team with collaboration problems, or the need to track compliance issues.

Where does PLM start and end? Does it start with a planning meeting, a range plan, blocks, designs?  And where does it finish, with a PO for Bulk, or shipment, or delivery, or despatch, or clearance?  The good news is that with most PLM solutions, a combination of any of the above should be possible, using the PLM’s critical path and integration from your ERP system.  Most PLM systems cover at least the Design to Purchase Decision process, the better ones start earlier and finish later.

What benefits can I expect from my PLM system? Certainly, having a single repository of all product data will give “one version of the truth”, rather than multiple spreadsheets.  And managing the development via critical path will help ensure that no key events are overlooked.  But also when the system is open to your suppliers, there should be a dramatic drop in the volume of emails and admin being processed internally.

Who will use my PLM solution?  Internally, most staff involved in the design and development process will need some access, although designers whose role is the origination of new ideas will have minimal input.  Downstream, Product developers, merchandisers, garment techs and buyers will all have some involvement too.

And what about external users, suppliers, buying agents, testing labs and others?  By all means, plan to include them in the process BUT get the system working correctly internally before opening it up to the wider world.  Usually this will involve running for at least one full season.

PLM screenshot-smallWho should lead my PLM project?  It’s important that PLM has the visible backing of senior management, particularly because some staff like to be the gatekeepers of their own data and need some “encouragement” to embrace the new system.  Promote the benefits for the business of commonality of data, standardisation and reduced administration.

What is the best way to implement a PLM system?  For seasonal businesses, implementing in line with the development of the collection is undoubtedly the easiest option; for businesses with continuous product design and development, picking a target event (eg “All new designs” or Ex-Factory date) is the best approach.  If you have multiple brands or divisions, it is tempting to try to standardise the processes across the business, but this may not be possible where there are too many differences between them.  Your PLM supplier should be able to steer you towards suitable best practice.

When is a PLM system live?  Unlike other systems your business may be using, PLM does not have a rigid framework to automate.   As a benchmark however, producing a usable Tech Pack and Line Sheet are the best indications of a live system.

How can I justify the cost of a PLM system? There is no quick calculator to give you an ROI figure for your PLM investment; indeed, a lot of the benefits are intangible.  But often the trigger to install a PLM is the “expensive mistake”: the unsaleable product, poor quality component or tainted supplier that led to lost business or increased costs.  The cost of a PLM system should be looked on as a medium term investment, with a minimum lifespan of five years.  That annual cost should be compared to staff salaries, and the ability PLM has to manage more products without increasing staff numbers.

How do I ensure a successful PLM implementation? If you have identified the requirement accurately, set your expectations and the expectations of the business, involved the users throughout the selection and implementation process, you’re well on the way to a successful PLM implementation.

For more information on STYLEman PLM and PLM systems in general, please call Tony Parkinson on (0)116 291 6666 or email sales@styleman.com.  Full contact details are here.

Unexpected Brexit

Currency Cover

The unexpected Brexit decision led to an immediate drop in value of the Pound against other major currencies, in particular the US Dollar and Euro.  For some businesses, it highlighted a vulnerability in currency exposure, for those who had only limited or no forward cover.

Look at your exposure to each currency, the balance between purchases and sales.  To reduce your exposure, the difference should be as close to zero as possible.  If you buy in dollars but only sell in Sterling, you’re at risk whenever the Pound drops.  Similarly, if you buy in dollars and sell more in dollars, your risk is when trying to convert the margin back to sterling – when the pound rises against the dollar, your margin decreases.

USD to GBP – 17 Jun to 5 Aug 2016 EUR to GBP– 17 Jun to 5 Aug 2016
 dollar  euro
(courtesy xe.com) (courtesy xe.com)

If you can balance the value of purchases and sales in each currency, you can minimise your exposure to currency fluctuations.  If this is not possible, then buying some of the required currency forward will insure against future currency movements.  How much should you cover?  Certainly no more than your exposure to the currency (the difference between purchases and sales), and probably an amount less than that.  Buying forward cover is an insurance policy and carries a premium; it is not unusual to have an amount that is an “excess” that is self-insured, and would lead to an exchange loss or indeed gain.

One other point to consider is the timing of currency purchases and sales; if you feel that (for example) sterling may recover against the dollar in the near future, it may be beneficial to leave funds in dollars rather than converting them, and borrow against the pot.  Of course, this type of speculation can backfire if the pound weakens further – you would take additional losses at some point in the future and have the arrangement fees and interest to carry against your borrowing.

 

 

General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)

GDPRIn case it slipped by unnoticed, a new piece of Data Privacy legislation came into force in May and is still likely to be implemented in the UK, regardless of our planned Brexit.  Even if the UK does not ratify this or similar legislation, companies selling into the EU are still required to comply.   This time around, fines for non-compliance are far from a token measure – firms can be fined up to 4% of annual global turnover for breaches.

The legislation has its roots in a number of high-profile data breaches that I’m sure you have seen in the press over the last few years.  It aims to use a financial stick to make all firms much more conscientious when it comes to securing their data.  In summary, the changes are:

  • Reach – it catches non-EU companies processing EU data (which will be us going forward)
  • Regulatory Body – a new European Data Protection Board is being set up to implement and advise
  • Management – you can be asked to demonstrate compliance, conduct impact assessments etc
  • Consent – be able to demonstrate that you have the owner’s permission to hold their data. Expect a new rash of check boxes when you create a new account.
  • Duty to notify breaches – turn yourself in to the Data Protection Board in the event of data loss
  • Right to be forgotten – individuals will have the right in certain circumstances to have their data removed from your records

So what should you be doing to prepare for GDPR?

  • Examine your “chain of custody” of consumer data, looking for points of vulnerability in storage, transfer and access
  • Ensure employee contracts emphasise data confidentiality and prohibit disclosure
  • Check privacy notices and policies on e-commerce and web sites
  • Establish a framework for accountability for data security
  • Develop procedures and systems for “right to be forgotten” requests

More information and an accessible guide is available here.

STYLEman ERP can support end-to-end data encryption and database encryption to protect your data both in transit and at rest, and exceeds current PCI security requirements.

Union Customs Code changes

From 1st May 2016 the Union Customs Code is being introduced. This is an attempt to simplify procedures, close a number of loopholes and tidy up the process in a harmonised way across the EU. It aims to streamline customs legislation and procedures, offer greater legal certainty and uniformity to businesses, increase clarity for customs officials throughout the EU, facilitate more efficient customs transactions, complete the shift by Customs to a paperless environment, and reinforce swifter customs procedures for compliant and trustworthy economic operators.

Changes include:

  • all communications between customs authorities and economic operators must be electronic
  • guarantees for most special procedures and Temporary Storage (new authorisations only)
  • ability to make some movements under Temporary Storage
  • removal of the earlier sales provisions relating to valuation (but transitional arrangements may apply)
  • Some procedures and reliefs will cease or change on 30 April 2016

STYLEman ERP is ready for these changes, with flexible costing formats easily modified to match your choice of paying duty on imported or processed products.  STYLEman’s multi-warehouse capability also allows easy tracking of bonded and cleared goods, as well as items in temporary storage.  Processing orders also allow the tracking of added value processes both to stock and outbound goods.

Further guidance on the UCC changes from here, to find out more, talk to Tony Parkinson or Roger Clarke on +44 (0)116 291 6666.