What is PLM? with Dr Jo Conlon

As part of the blog, podcast and support channels here at Fashion Podcast, I will be interviewing a selection of industry professionals about their roles, with the vision to support students in their early career choices as well as supporting graduates into their first or future job roles. I hope that you all find them insightful! These blog posts are scripted from the Podcast episodes from ‘The Fashion Toolbox Podcast’ available on all Podcast listening platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

This week I was joined by Dr Jo Conlon.

Dr Jo Conlon is a Lecturer in Fashion Business at the University of Manchester and Programme Director of the on-campus fashion business programmes. In 2019, Jo completed a Doctorate in Education (EdD) investigating how digital technologies can reshape fashion business education. Jo has over ten years’ experience teaching Fashion Business within Higher Education. Prior to this, Jo worked extensively within the supply chain of Marks and Spencer as a Technical and Sourcing Manager. Her early career was grounded in a systems approach to product development and global supply many years before this approach became best practice. Her research centres on the enabling role of digital technologies on knowledge management, learning and change within organisations. Jo has also received funding for two Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) projects to implement emerging and enabling technologies. Jo is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a member of the Chartered Management Institute and an Associate of the Textile Institute.

Fashion Toolbox 00:00

Thank you so much, Jo, for joining me on the podcast today. I really appreciate it.

Can you tell me about how you came to work in in the Fashion industry and your background?

Dr Jo Conlon 00:12

Yes. Thank you for inviting me. It's really nice to be here. I think like lots of people, I fell into the Fashion industry, I have science A levels, and I liked making things and I didn't know what to do at university. And somehow, I stumbled across doing Textile technology, and that's what I did. So, I studied Textile technology at Manchester. And at the time, there was a scheme by Marks and Spencer’s, they called them Marks and Spencer’s Supplier Scheme. So, I was sponsored through my undergraduate programme which was great, but it also meant that I had opportunities for placements. So I had placements at the end of my first year, and then two placements at the end of my second year between my second year and my third year and then I went into the Marks and Spencer’s Suppliers Scheme, Graduate scheme on graduation. So really, that's kind of how I fell into the industry, and have been very happily employed in it ever since really!

Fashion Toolbox 01:10

That sounds like a really good scheme. Do Marks & Spencer’s still do that?

Dr Jo Conlon 01:14

No, I don't think at the time what they were trying to do, there were still lots of people, lots of factories and textile manufacturers working in the UK. And they were trying to encourage graduates to go and study textiles in order to move the industry forward. So, it's kind of like an incentive scheme. And it certainly worked, and I benefited from it and I think it was a really good scheme. And I think that kind of thinking really from a consortium of retailers or suppliers or whatever would be really beneficial to go forward because, there was a small bursary, which at the time was, well it's very nice, isn't it? But the best part of it was getting the experience so having the opportunity to have, a mentor in retail or in manufacturing and get experience was really good.

Fashion Toolbox 02:04

Yeah, it's absolutely priceless. And I think that, especially with everything that's going on at the moment, if we decide to bring manufacturing back, we're going to be a little bit stuck. So, these schemes would just be fabulous to re-introduce. So hopefully, that's something that we're going to gain from this negative one positive!

Dr Jo Conlon 02:25

We have to look for the positives. I think that's the thing, you know, great change often happens when things have really been very bad. And that's not to diminish what people are going through at the moment and the losses that people have suffered. But I think you have to remain optimistic and optimistic for change for the better.

Fashion Toolbox 02:42


So, could you explain what PLM is for any listeners who may not be aware?

Dr Jo Conlon 02:48

I'd be amazed if anybody did know what it meant! So, what I would like to say first is not to think of PLM as a software, it is software as in it's an IT system, but not to think of it as a software, but to think of it as an approach to doing things in a systematic way, using technology to help you. So, it's also kind of like a journey. So, we haven't got a fixed destination in mind. We're just on this journey to make things better. And PLM is the vehicle that we're going to get in to get there. So PLM stands for Product Lifecycle Management and the 'L' part of it for me is really important, because that is 'Lifecycle' so that it covers all the aspects of a product from the first time a designer has an idea about it all the way through that creative process, on through manufacturing, right back through retail, and eventually through sale and feedback from our customers through social media or any other way that we could get data once the product is actually live with the customer. So, I think the lifecycle part is really important. But what a system, the PLM system will do for you is it gives everybody that's involved in that what's called a single source of truth. So it's like a hub, or a pot, or a digital filing system where all the information about that product is stored and everybody that is connected to that, whether they're a designer, one of your suppliers, or somebody that's working in retail has the opportunity to look at that information and look at that information and it's live, because then it can help you make better decisions. So, everybody's connected to the same source of information, and everybody can do something with that information. The benefit of that is, if you've worked in a system before or you've worked with email or Excel sheets that are sent out very often you can be working on out of date information or even products that have been pulled. And you have been still working on it because you haven't got up to date information. So, having a live system, and a live source of truth for everybody is kind of invaluable. So that's kind of the way to think of it. Like a way that we can all look at the same sort of information. And a way of remembering what PLM is, is most people use this; they call it the 'three P's'. So, the 'three P's' are people, product data, and processes. So, it's a way of systemising all your processes, putting in standard practices. It's a way of capturing all your product data, so all the data about your designs, your materials, your bill of materials, your suppliers, your test results, all that data to do with the product. And then the major part of it is the 'P' for people. So, it's a collaborative tool to allow us all to work more collaboratively together. So from the designer to speak directly to the supplier for the supplier to have some input at the mood board stage, that kind of a way of enabling a much more collaborative, two way discussion between all of the people that are involved in making a product. And so, in this, what it has the potential to do, is to bring our suppliers in. So we don't just have all the expertise in head office and at the design stage, and then we just push it out to our suppliers who then of manufacture it and then push it back to us like it's some kind of hot potato, we can work collaboratively with it. And everybody through what's called the 'extended enterprise' is connected in the system. So, we're all in the system, we can all see the data, and we can all therefore be much more responsive and accurate and collaboratively within a way of a system that has brought us all together. I would like to add, so what I think PLM if we see PLM as a methodology or as an approach rather than a software, what it does for businesses is kind in stages. So, depending on where you are on how advanced your systems are, PLM will do different things for you. So if you don't have any standardised processes whatsoever, what PLM will do is help you put those in and you will benefit from the best practices of other people who have already put the system in. So, it will help you get organised and systemized and set up standard processes. If you're a bit more advanced, it will help you build on those best practices so that you're optimising things. So, you are learning where you're inefficient, you are learning where you've got bottlenecks, you are learning where things have gone wrong and you've got quality or production issues. And then you can do things in your business to make those problems go away. But the potential of PLM now isn't just about optimising so that we're faster and more efficient and making less mistakes. The potential of PLM now is to connect all the different digital software's that we have, and to make them work together. So rather than having all the different parts, your social media data, your design data, your 3D data, your manufacturing data all separately, if we could bring it all together, we'll have all that information to make even better decisions. So, it's kind of like two stages, optimising what you've got and becoming the best that you can. And then the transformation stage. So, PLM has got two aspects to it. And they're the benefits that it brings to business. But the first benefits that it brings to businesses are well documented so that the efficiencies that it can bring, as I talked about at the beginning of people not working on out to date or obsolete information, quality errors, reduction in quality, improving in just people's time and efficiency and production times all that data is well documented and what it actually delivers on the promise to optimise your processes. There's good information out there if people wanted to look at the detail.

Fashion Toolbox 09:22

Yes, I couldn't agree more with that, because I work in Product Development and I cover multiple aspects of the product development process. So, the tech and everything in Excel sheets, all the Gantt charts that you have, it's so difficult to keep those up to date. And to have a system where everything is in one place and you can just update one thing and that updates everything is just, it's just like a dream.

Dr Jo Conlon 09:52

Yeah. For the system to sort of help you It should be, in terms of automating work workflow. So if you, say I put in that a lab dye has been approved, that then means something to somebody else, I don't then have to notify the person their workflow will automatically be updated that that's happened, and therefore they can get on with it. And in terms of your priorities, it can help you organise your workflow so that you do the thing that's most important to the business, not the most important to you. And that's sometimes not very, not how we want to work, but if we're working for an organisation, that's how we have to work, we have to work on the business priorities. So yeah, organising workflow, stopping spending half of Monday in a critical path meeting and actually doing your job. Happy Days!

Fashion Toolbox 10:44


So, in terms of for a Garment Technician, for example, how much easier does building a tech pack become by using PLM?

Dr Jo Conlon 10:56

So, we can have an interesting chat about tech packs, really. So, I'll start with how it can help and then I'll say how I think it should change. If you imagine that you're building your bill of materials, and everything is at your fingertips, so you can see the button, you know how what ligne the button is, you know how many holes it's got, you've got a picture of it from the library, you have got the same for your fabrics, you know that it's approved, you know that it's production proven, etc. Just imagine how much easier building your tech pack is, because it stops, it's kind of like a filing system for people who, you know, designers and product developers are creative people they don't want to be administrators, that's not what they came into the world for. So, if the system will help them with administrative detail, which is so important to get right for the manufacturer, then that's really good. So, the library so in what happens in PLM, is you build all your components and all your patterns and all your construction methods into a library. And then you it's kind of like it should be a drag and drop, it's not as easy as that, it's more like a tick. So, then you can just go in the library and get all your materials and build up your tech pack really easily. So, it should be much more efficient once the library is populated, then then currently. But what I want to say, on tech packs and PLM. So if you have a tech pack, which you build in a PLM system, and then you save it as an Adobe PDF file and you email it to your supplier, you are no longer working in a PLM system. Because the whole point of the system is that the suppliers should be involved too. So, what I would say on tech packs is maybe we need to think about them differently. What if when we are doing our mood boards and we are putting our mood boards together, what if we invited our suppliers in? And we said to them, what do you think about this? And they'll say, actually, that pocket placement has previously been a real quality issue for us, or that kind of zip is a nightmare or, we have made a style very similar to that actually, we could just get going immediately. We've got fabric surplus fabric that we know that if you could use this, you know, we could... So what I'm saying is if we invited our suppliers in rather than just sending them a PDF, what we could do is we could make things even more efficient, we could eliminate a lot of waste, waste through effort and waste through not using the resources that are available to us. So that's what I think. The difficulty with getting things systemized is we then end up sticking with how things are and that's not how we should do things, we should use PLM to think this is the best way of doing it at the moment, but all the time thinking what if we did something else? What if we did this? So, on Tech Packs it would definitely help you, but remember that the end game is that we're trying to connect everybody through the whole lifecycle. So, the minute we come out of the system, we've kind of broken that. And then to say, Ok, this is tech pack is kind of a formula that's in the in the fashion industry, but what if it wasn't? What if we did it differently? How can we do it differently? And that's what I would encourage people that are coming into the industry to do.

Fashion Toolbox 14:27

Yes, I completely agree with that. The whole aim of this is that it should be a collaborative system. And we should be including suppliers in everything right from the start right to the finish because they have got all the knowledge and they could make things so much easier for us, so I do I completely agree. And in terms of the freedom that PLM gives us at the moment, yes. Oh my gosh, that's what we need because at the minute, we are just getting drowned with the admin tasks and we cannot be creative, we need that freedom.

Dr Jo Conlon 14:33

And I think in the future what could also happen is, why not involve your trend data or customers or something in there? You can be collaborative with your supply base, but you could also work collaboratively with your customers or with your customers data. Just so that we're I don't know, I mean there are problems with that, isn't there? And I know friends who are designers would be screaming at me. But do you see? we can work collaboratively into the supply chain and into our customers and I think that would be a good thing.

Fashion Toolbox 15:42

Yeah, I think that 3D might offer us those benefits hopefully, in the future.

So how useful is a PLM system far transparency and the maintenance and upkeep of your supplier databases, vendor databases, and how Is it different to using Excel?

Dr Jo Conlon 16:03

So, this is probably why I became interested in PLM. Because my job as a Fabric Technologist who was working in sourcing was to keep all the test data, so the fibre composition, any flame retardancy, any test results like that, the supplier appraisal documents. But also, if you were a Garment Tech all of the factory audit data, all of that has to be saved somewhere and that's not easy. Again, people who wanted to be a Fabric Technologist didn't want to do admin either. So what the system will help you do is all that data needs to be in there to allow you to progress the product and therefore when you need it because there's a problem, a quality problem, or a query on, for example, somebody asking where this was made, you'll have the data to hand. But equally all that information this is about, as we were talking at the beginning, it's about all that information should be available to everybody. So, if a supplier is offering something cheaply, more cheaply than a second supplier, then the person who's making that buying decision needs information about how reliable that supplier is. Because cheap is good, but if it comes with quality issues that cost the business money, or if it comes with delay, then a slight reduction in the cost isn't actually worth it. So if you have all this data available to people so people can see the supplier performance and their appraisals, then you can make a proper decision on where you place your orders and I think that's really important for everybody to be involved in. Then, as we move, I'd like to live in the happy day where we would actually know where things are being made because we have seen both offshore and onshore that brands are just not performing on knowing where their goods are being manufactured, and we need to get better at that. So, with having everything in a system, you can have live data to track where things are, and then you also have traceable data, that product history of where things were made. So, as we move to a more transparent and more sustainable business and fashion industry as a whole, having a PLM system, or equivalent in place, I think is an imperative.

Fashion Toolbox 18:43

I completely agree, that is what we need, moving towards a more sustainable and traceable, transparent future. So, this kind of business model is just imperative isn't it?

Dr Jo Conlon 18:56

In this day and age, it should not be acceptable for brands and retailers to not know, effectively where things are being made, and the conditions in which they're being made.

Fashion Toolbox 19:10

So, PLM has been implemented in a lot of industries already, and they have been using it quite successfully. And I think fashion is probably one of the slowest uptakes!

How do you see PLM benefiting the Fashion industry?

Dr Jo Conlon 19:28

You are absolutely right. Firstly, so PLM isn't just for the fashion industry. PLM is for anybody that makes anything so if you're making a car or ship, a helicopter, pharmaceuticals, whatever, even buildings have an equivalent, you know, if you were in construction, there's an equivalent system for construction. It's like if you're making stuff, everybody's worked out there needs to be a better way of doing it, than the way we're currently doing it. So, we can learn a lot of lessons from the automotive industry and other engineering systems where PLM is much more advanced. You touched on 3D before, because we all know that cars and helicopters and ships aren't made in a sample room, they are made in 3D in 3D design, and then they are prototyped like that, and then they go into production. And those products are really complex. Our products are complex, but I would argue a helicopter is probably more complex. So, I think we certainly can do it. I think what PLM can do is show us or model us a better way of a better future and I think that's what it offers organisations. So, it can obviously, this is where the data comes from on being more efficient, reducing quality, being faster, it comes from other industries, as well as from Fashion. So, there's this good history to show that it will improve your business.

Fashion Toolbox 20:56

I think one of the exciting things as well is that the successful industries that are using PLM and 3D software like automotive, they've got a circular business model. So hopefully, putting that in for us is also going to be circular and we can start to replace things and improve things and not have this throw away fashion.

Dr Jo Conlon 21:21

Absolutely. I think it's really interesting that you brought up circular but I think as people who are who are interested in circular and get more into it, I think we realised that we probably can't solve or we can't be circular as the Fashion industry. Probably the Fashion industry will need to populate other sectors with its waste and equally benefit from 'food' from other systems. And if all manufacturing goods were in a system where we could share data on a big scale, then we could see where there were resources that were available to us more widely. So, it doesn't have to be just that, you could think... Yes, it would be a huge leap forward if the Fashion industry did it. But the fashion industry could connect with other industries, then we can really get circular.

Fashion Toolbox 22:15

Oh, yes, definitely. as a whole. That could be really exciting.

Do you think that PLM is something which students should be learning at undergraduate level?

Dr Jo Conlon 22:24