As published in Food Quality & Safety
Almost every large food manufacturer has already started its paperless journey, replacing paper-based processes in everything from order management to manufacturing to distribution and warehousing all the way to customer support. Going paperless offers huge competitive dividends as it helps manufacturers simplify operations and ensure product quality.
By replacing paper and clipboards with electronic tracking and real-time analysis, manufacturers can spot problems quicker—allowing them to zero in on the origin faster and accelerate their time to resolution to minimize overall impact. This can dramatically reduce the waste and cost associated with quality problems that go unchecked. Additionally, an automated process can identify information gaps at the detail level and increase productivity since keeping track of materials’ specific origin, processing, and distributions can be labor intensive and time consuming.
Eliminating paper processes enhances food manufacturers’ ability to maintain consistent quality with greater efficiency, safety, and consistency—ultimately protecting their brand reputation and helping them get the most return from thin margins. On a human level, the increased simplicity that comes with “going paperless” helps eliminate the drudgery of paperwork, increasing employee satisfaction and sharpening their focus on the core mission of producing great products.
However, despite the benefits mentioned above, many food enterprises are still using processes that rely on paper instructions and documentation. Why are some companies holding onto these paper processes? Because, given the required investment in new technology, they perceive the process of transitioning to paperless as too complex and not cost-effective when calculating the time to train employees to use and understand the new systems. Unfortunately, not transitioning to paperless processes creates serious risks for food manufacturers.
Hidden Liabilities of New Regulations
With food safety regulations tightening and competitors striving to grab market share, information gaps associated with holding onto paper processes create real vulnerabilities for manufacturers. Due to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), food manufacturers must now ensure they are producing according to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). This includes traceability of everything including all source materials, manufacturing, packaging, and labeling processes that align with master documentation.
Pressure for reliable track-and-trace capabilities is also coming from health-conscious consumers who are increasingly focused on food safety and accountability. They want to know what is in their food—including GMOs—where it comes from and how it was produced.
As an example, consider information tracking related to raw materials. Food manufacturers track their incoming and consumed materials at a gross level through their enterprise resource planning, or ERP, systems. But as mentioned earlier, there are often gaps at the detailed consumption and processing levels. Producers typically know what materials were used for a particular production run, but they may not have comprehensive information regarding which blended material lots were used in each and every packaged good or a full “genealogy” of the material at a granular level. If a quality issue arises in the finished product, this gap will make tracking down the source and the downstream impact both complex and time-consuming, significantly effecting the business and the brand.
Promise of the IIoT
To solve these vulnerabilities, manufacturers need to modernize their automation systems and IT infrastructures. Forward-looking enterprises are viewing this as an opportunity to create a “smarter” supply chain and automation environment and are embracing the idea of leveraging the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
The power of the IIoT comes from its combination of connectedness, intelligence, and speed. It is about connecting devices throughout the supply chain and production processes to collect and interconnect operational data, which can be organized and quickly analyzed to enable a multitude of powerful capabilities—including real-time process optimization, which was previously not possible. Collecting, analyzing, and displaying production data from across a plant, product line, or enterprise in real-time enables IIoT systems to identify and rectify instances of non-compliance with Standard Operating Procedures much faster than is possible with traditional paper-based processes.
The IIoT also provides food manufacturers the opportunity to connect with consumers in ways that can help transform their businesses. As food manufacturers continue to face increasing pressure from both regulators and consumers, they need to be nimbler than ever before. By extracting and leveraging intelligence from across the supply and demand chain, the IIoT will be at the forefront to assist food manufacturers facing these challenges of the ever-accelerating speed of the food industry.
Creating a Smart Supply and Demand Chain
Most consumers are already familiar with the power and potential of the IoT to help make their lives easier. In the food industry, consumers can now purchase refrigerators with IoT capabilities that enable them to view their home food “inventory” from anywhere via their smartphone. This connectivity can then be extended to their preferred grocery vendor, which in turn is integrated with food suppliers and manufacturers. This connectivity allows consumer demand to be monitored and analyzed unlike ever before, giving parties at each step in the supply and demand chain insight that can increase their efficiency and potential profitability. Integrating this information and adapting to automated systems enables companies to build a truly intelligent enterprise that will make production and inventory decisions with little or no human intervention.
The IIoT will make food manufacturers more flexible and agile in responding to market shifts. As people integrate more intelligent devices into their lives, more data about consumer demand can be aggregated and shared directly with supply chain systems to better inform them about product preferences. The impact this will have on the manufacturer’s production, materials, and distribution planning would be immense and ensure the right product gets to the right places at the right time, all while eliminating unnecessary warehousing, refrigeration, transportation, and inventory costs.
Making the Transition
How do food manufacturers continue this journey to become paperless? The good news is the cost of connecting devices in the manufacturing process is decreasing, which means so are the reasons for retaining manual processes.
However, while the IIoT promises revolutionary improvements for quality and efficiency, achieving its full potential will likely be an evolutionary process for most food manufacturers. It’s not realistic to think in terms of a comprehensive “all or nothing” implementation. Instead, manufacturers can use IIoT technologies to connect and complement existing automation systems. For example, the first steps could be minimizing manual and paper-based processes, or delivering new insights and instructions via real-time data to operators’ mobile devices to guide their work. As the apparent value of IIoT continues to become grow, manufacturers can add new capabilities that extend data collection, organization, and analysis as they move toward completing a truly “smart” supply and demand chain.
Of course, as the role of electronic data grows, so does its importance. Indeed, concern about the reliance of electronic data systems causes some manufacturers to hold on to paper as a last resort or “backup.” However, relying on paper solely for this purpose actually limits the enterprise, preventing it from its full potential to transform the way business is done.
Instead, food manufacturers need to make continuous availability a top priority as they migrate to paperless systems and increased connectivity. High-availability, fault-tolerant systems are critical in preventing any disruption in the data stream that could lead to production downtime or missing data.
In addition, as intelligence moves out to the network edge, such as with in-line quality analysis, implementing technology that ensures these systems can be serviced easily is equally important for minimizing operating costs and complexity. With operational technology teams running lean, the ability to perform remote servicing of production systems is crucial.
Narrow margins and intense competition make rapid return on investment a vital component when implementing these technological changes. Few industries are more focused on ROI than food manufacturing. So what’s the ultimate payback of “going paperless” and adopting the IIoT? The greatest return may be in helping avoid the pitfall of having to issue a recall. By enabling manufacturers to perform in-line, real-time quality analysis, as well as detailed track and trace, the IIoT can protect an enterprise from a food quality or safety issue that could prove catastrophic to brand integrity and reputation.
Ultimately, the future of food manufacturing will be paperless. As you plot your course, recognize that this paperless journey offers more than just greater efficiency; it offers an opportunity to rethink how your business operates, competes, and connects to satisfy customers and increase brand preference.
“How Food Manufacturers Can Benefit from Going Paperless,” Food Quality & Safety August 2017, Copyright 2017, Wiley
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