Rising supplier costs, compliance requirements, customer expectations, and other factors create pressure to maintain lean yet quality-driven operations within the food industry’s competitive landscape. However, many companies witness diminishing margins and a thinning line between profit and loss under these pressures. How do leading food and beverage companies continue to navigate these challenges with success?
The answer lies in leveraging the data that facilities are already producing to generate valuable insights. From there, organizations can make timely and effective decisions to increase efficiencies, promote compliance, and drive profits. To retrieve that data, however, you need technology.
Within this guide, we’ll discuss how technology and automation can unlock the potential of your plant by tapping into the data that matters most to your business’s success. In the coming pages, we’ll cover:
- How collecting and analyzing data at critical points in the production process can uncover areas for improvement, leading to drastic cost savings
- Why production equipment is a goldmine of valuable data
- The difference between production data and production information
- Examples of how technology can streamline your production processes for improved quality and consistency
- Why the most successful organizations benefit from putting production data into the hands of their plant workforce
Let’s begin by taking a closer look at why implementing technology could be a smart business decision for your company.
Start With “Why”
The foundation of any successful technology implementation is built on answering the organization’s “why.” There’s usually a mandatory requirement for food and beverage companies to invest in technology—whether for compliance or customer expectations. Yet, the most successful companies attach business value to regulatory compliance. Instead of investing in a solution to merely help their facilities follow the rules and processes, they also use technology to improve key business drivers, such as the quality and consistency of food. For large enterprises producing significant volumes of food, even minor, incremental improvements can have a substantial financial impact.
Common goals for introducing technology and automation within food manufacturing facilities include:
- Increasing yields and efficiencies
- Increasing throughput
- Improving product quality
- Achieving better decision making
- Improving overall equipment effectiveness
Indeed, the companies that fare best with technology investments don’t just explore how a new solution will meet mandatory obligations; they also consider why else they should pursue implementation and how it could benefit their overall business. Of course, such a broad question requires input from multiple sources.
Seeking Cross-Organization Input
Involving multiple departments in your project from the very beginning will ensure you hear from several different perspectives. While production personnel and information technology historically have driven technology manufacturing systems, seeking input from various stakeholders will garner organization-wide support, thereby improving your odds of a successful implementation. The more input a department has in defining what they need from a solution, the more invested they’ll be in supporting it each step of the way. Conversely, if departments don’t see the value, support could wane early on.
To help you prepare your facility for regulatory compliance, here’s a quick review of some of the key concepts discussed in this guide:
- Food Safety & Quality Assurance
- Information Technology
- Human Resources
- Plant Operations
Many of these departments will have goals in common, such as driving compliance. However, although compliance ranks high in terms of overall business value, attaching other high-value metrics from various departments to the project can be beneficial for everyone involved.
How Is Technology Used in Food Production?
While emerging technologies have long been a driving force in food production, recent technological advances have the potential to revolutionize a global food production system. As margins shrink and competition rapidly proliferates, manufacturers are consistently faced with performing complex processes with less time and labor. Process manufacturers must explore technological solutions. Plant management software is a critical technology that can mitigate labor issues and continue to drive quality within the complicated webs comprising global markets.
Example: Grupo Navis and SafetyChain
Plant management software can impact day-to-day operations for employees on the floor of the facility, and help organizations identify both major and minor areas of improvement. Grupo Navis is a strategic investment firm, supporting a portfolio of companies such as FreshHouse, Caribbean Produce, WanaBana US & Exchange, and Nutriendo PR, an NGO that tackles food insecurity. Its previous business and operations models relied heavily on manual input and underutilized data. It was crucial to clearly define organizational priorities as a component of its digital transformation. Grupo Navis was searching for a tool that could assist it in developing a robust operational backbone that facilitated better working relationships with suppliers, delivered value to customers, and boosted productivity by properly utilizing data and labor hours.
As the various holdings within Grupo Navis have implemented SafetyChain’s plant management software, facilities were able to automate temperature readings, data collection, and claim processes. By digitizing forms and automating processes, implementing SafetyChain drastically cut the amount of time a single Quality Assurance manager spent on collecting data and processing forms. What used to take a single QA manager over 17 hours to do could now be accomplished in just over an hour of work, saving over 800 hours of labor in a year. As a result of integrating plant management software, Grupo Navis has been able to absorb labor shortage challenges and even continue improvement. Employees can enjoy faster resolution and greater success when performing tasks. SafetyChain has also empowered continuous organic improvement through easy adoption and usability from the enterprise-level down. Automation is a vital function that plant management software can deliver to an organization.
Let’s take a deeper dive into automation.
What Are the 4 Types of Automation?
As with other technologies, the concept of automation is not new, and there is evidence of simple automation in the historical record. But automation as an emerging technology is rapidly expanding in depth and complexity with the support of machines and robotics. As many as 73 percent of food and beverage manufacturers in 2017 indicated that they were already using, or preparing to implement, some form of food production automation. The number is undoubtedly higher now and is expected to continue increasing. Automation speeds up processes and significantly reduces error, and for many companies has been an integral aspect of continuous improvement. There are four types of automation in manufacturing:
- Fixed automation: Also known as hard automation, is a system that uses individual machines to produce a single product. This type of automation is ideal for producing large batches of a single item.
- Programmable automation: Unlike fixed automation, programmable automation can change with different configurations. A system receives instructions and then interprets and executes them, and then can receive an entirely new set of instructions.
- Flexible automation: Similar to programmable automation, flexible automation is more responsive, adjusting to produce different quantities or even producing multiple batch types simultaneously.
- Integrated automation: Manufacturers that fully integrate operations and processes based on digital information are functioning within an integrated automation system.
What Are Some Examples of Automated Manufacturing?
As we said before, automation may be classed as an emerging technology, but it’s hardly new. The food and beverage industry has made use of the different types of food production automation for years. Several examples of automation include:
- Fixed automation: Assembly lines, conveyor systems, transfer lines
- Programmable automation: programmable logic controllers, industrial robots, mass production
- Flexible automation: material handling systems, robots, batch processes
- Integrated automation: automatic storage and retrieval, computer-supported manufacturing, computerized production
Next, we’ll explore the difference between data and information—and why it matters for pursuing your business goals.
Empowering Your Company Through Data
Technology and automation are so powerful for food companies because they take raw data a step further, turning it into information. To illustrate why that matters, here’s the difference between data and information:
- Data comprises the facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis
- Information encompasses the facts provided or learned about something
In other words, information is the analysis and manipulation of data to gain valuable insights into a given situation. Data consists of the raw numbers provided by machines and collected by operators and users.
On its own, data typically doesn’t derive value. However, when combined with other factors and put into context, it leads to information that can be acted upon to drive value within the organization.
Where Does Data Live in Food Companies?
There are many different sources of data within food manufacturing facilities. For instance, data can come from:
- Production management
- Food safety and quality assurance
- Shipping and logistics
- Time and attendance
While this data provides value when analyzed and put into context within each department where it’s produced, organizations can also look at it holistically to drive organization-wide improvement. But data can often become siloed. For example, if throughput isn’t analyzed collectively by your production management, maintenance, and food safety and quality assurance teams, you’re probably not maximizing the value of your data.
By integrating and sharing information within an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, you can achieve a comprehensive overview of what’s going on throughout the entire organization. More importantly, by putting accurate data in the hands of decision-makers at the most appropriate time, you can advance the company as a whole. Tapping into the data that has gone largely ignored until now will help your organization grow and evolve.
Machine Integration: The Hidden Goldmine
Of all the production data that gets overlooked in food manufacturing facilities, machine data is among the most valuable. While manually recording machine data is time-consuming and error-prone, modern solutions allow you to automate the collection of metrics such as temperatures, weights, speeds, pressures, and power consumption. Of the hundreds or thousands of data points available from your machines, you can identify the most impo
rtant to be used throughout the organization, then use technology to enable real-time monitoring and analysis of these key metrics. Organizations can achieve significant value by leveraging data from these hidden goldmines. By converting the raw data into actionable information, you can:
- Improve yields
- Increase efficiencies
- Optimize preventive maintenance
- Increase throughput and effectiveness
- Improve product consistency
With such large data stores in their facilities, it’s no surprise that food manufacturers may find themselves a bit overwhelmed, wondering which metrics to watch. Let’s take a look at how you can focus on the metrics that truly matter to business success in the coming section.
Who Should Monitor the Data?
When it comes to monitoring data in food and beverage companies, specificity is vital. Manufacturers must appoint specific people to monitor specific metrics at specific times. For example, here’s a breakdown of various departments and the metrics they might watch:
- Plant Operations
- Production order fulfillment
- Process yields
- Product giveaway
- Food Safety and Quality Assurance
- Compliance capability
- Lost, spoiled, or downgraded product
- Machine downtime
- Labor consumption
- Maintenance costs
- Manufacturing cost
- Expired or downgraded product
- Production pounds per labor hour
- Human Resources
- Production pounds per labor hour
- Worker attendance and turnover
- Information Technology
- Data and information accuracy
- Manual data entry and data correction labor
As you can see, there will undoubtedly be some overlap. For instance, both financial and human resources should analyze production pounds per labor hour. To get the most value from metrics, look at the “big picture” instead of reviewing isolated data, and gather input from various departments. With this high-level analysis, you can begin to identify opportunities for improvement, which brings us to our next point.
Identifying Opportunities for Drastic Improvement
To seek out opportunities where you can leverage business value, map out your business processes and look for low yield areas. This examination is critical later in production since value increases as you move closer toward finished goods. Using benchmark metrics, identify any processes where operations handle products beyond normal thresholds and determine where you might improve.
Even in back-office operations, technology and automation can achieve significant time savings. Oftentimes, employees spend time taking forms from production and keying in data manually. This process is traditionally error-prone and time-consuming, so automating the collection and storage of data can translate to significant hard dollar savings for your company.
While each facility will have its own unique areas for operational improvement, here are a few which are commonly identified:
- Low yields
- High labor input
- Double and triple handling of product
- Manual keying of data
- Disconnected back-office data sources
- Product giveaway
- High-density storage locations with varying shelf lives
- Production downtime or under-utilization
To turn these areas of opportunity into action, set goals using the “SMART” acronym:
- Specific: Identify the metric you’re going to focus on and how much of an improvement you’re aiming for
- Measurable: Put systems (manual or automated) in place to measure the results of your initiative
- Attainable: Ensure that the goal you’re setting for yourself is practical and attainable
- Realistic: Set goals that are achievable by your workforce (given current resources)
- Timely: Establish a realistic timeline in which your goal will be achieved
We’ll review examples of how companies have turned their data into actionable information to drive improved results in the coming segment.
Examples of Turning Data into Information and Action
While each food manufacturer has its own unique circumstances, goals, and priorities, the following examples illustrate how technology can help transform data into action in a variety of situations.
Situation: A customer requires you to label fixed-weight finished product cases with a specific barcode format and standard.
Data: Cases are weighed and labeled, and the generated transactions for each case contain production rate, product code, net weight, and a unique serial number.
Information: Cases from one packaging machine are consistently heavy, throughput from a different time is much lower than other lines, and some operators delete errant transactions more frequently than others.
Actions: Create a program for equipment calibration outside of production hours, enforce upper and lower case weight limits, identify and remove bottlenecks, and provide operator training.
Situation: An organization purchases combos of raw materials from suppliers and receives them at a processing facility.
Data: Check deliveries against what the organization purchased, log truck and trailer quality details, test product quality, and weigh each combo as it is unloaded.
Information: One supplier is consistently shipping light combos, another supplier’s combos have excessive water, and a third supplier has low-quality specs.
Actions: Request suppliers have regular scale check programs, only pay for raw materials weights, and reject loads with low-quality specs.
Situation: You sell a wide variety of products with different packaging configurations to many different customers.
Data: You track the manufacturing costs for each product, how much you ship to different customers, and the revenue generated.
Information: A small number of your products have high margins, but other products you make offset your overall margins. Different packaging configurations cause a lot of changeover downtime.
Actions: Negotiate higher prices on your lower margin products or stop selling them altogether. Streamline your packaging options and schedule like products together to minimize product changeovers.
As you can see, technology is a critical element of each of the above scenarios. Without the ability to track key metrics, forming actionable insights wouldn’t be possible. Thus, technology can add value to any organization if the organization leverages it strategically. With that in mind, we’ll leave you with a few final tips for a successful implementation.
Start Small, Win Big
When we think about technology deployments, we often advise organizations to start small to win big. With overambitious beginnings, projects often face the challenges of gaining acceptance and traction early on. It is thus far more effective to start with a relatively small project. The project should have a tightly-defined scope, short timeline, and high ROI.
Keep in mind that if technology is new or not yet widely used in your facility, it may take some time to see a cultural shift across your enterprise. However, even small projects can have measurable results, and executing on achievable goals will make it easier to expand your scope in the future.
While the ways in which technology helps food and beverage companies improve are too vast to measure, here are just a few of the most important benefits organizations have realized:
- Increase throughput: By uncovering and addressing inefficiencies throughout the production process, companies have made more product in the same amount of time.
- Reduce labor costs: Some organizations have significantly reduced labor costs by reducing the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) throughout production and back-office data entry roles. In fact, one facility has even produced the same volume of product with 25% of the labor force as its sister plant.
- Improve quality and consistency: By bringing automation to bulk processes and monitoring and managing human intervention, companies have witnessed drastic improvements in overall product quality and consistency.
- Improve decision making: Visibility into key performance metrics enables food and beverage companies to consistently make better decisions with accurate and timely information.
How Software Can Support Data Management
Plant management software platforms can facilitate the food production automation process, collecting data and helping facilities tap into and track equipment automation. Using data collection, plant management software can deliver full transparency in real-time. Whether your key initiatives are continuous improvement, transitioning to blockchain, or digital transformation, plant management software can be a powerful tool for positive change in your facility.
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