As the world continues to work toward economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, food manufacturers have been investing in products and equipment that can enhance their growth. The following are some communication tools that companies should consider adding to their arsenal to improve collaboration between workers, prevent costly mistakes and save money in the long run.
1. Cloud-Hosted Technology
With remote work becoming common in companies across the world, cloud-based technology is turning out to be an invaluable asset. In 2021, we saw a rise in labeling software providers that offer ways for local labeling software to get access to data stored in the cloud. That made it easier to obtain variable data that needed to be put on label templates at print time.
Cloud-hosted technology allows food manufacturers to print the correct labels with the right data at the proper time, and in a simple and secure manner. As a result, they can avoid risky and potentially dangerous mistakes in labeling.
2. Smart Manufacturing
Smart manufacturing is a method for companies to use data to optimize every part of the production process. Radio frequency identification (RFID) and barcode technologies are two of the most popular data carriers used by IoT devices. Such device-to-software communication helps efficiently deliver data while avoiding time-consuming manual procedures that might result in more time loss or costs.
3. New On-Spot Communication Equipment
Many factories still use cheap and outdated headsets to communicate inside loud spaces and next to machinery. That often results in unclear messages. Failing to give and receive a clear message can have dire consequences, especially in terms of food safety. For this reason, food manufacturers should regularly update headsets and other devices they use to convey messages inside factories.
Enhance Communication in Loud Facilities
There are companies that offer a modern solution to the communication problems inside factories. The following are some quality options to offer to enhance communication in loud places.
1. Two-Way Communication Headsets
Originally intended for tour guides and their groups, two-way communication headsets can have various purposes inside food factories. For instance, you can use them to make effective communication easier among your workers in the noisy parts of your plant. Or perhaps, you can use them when you bring in visitors, business partners and potential investors for a quick and interactive look around. In any case, a wireless two-way headsets system makes talking and listening quick and simple, despite ambient sounds.
Furthermore, most headsets for factories and tours are often heavy and bulky, which is why they quickly start irritating those wearing them. On the other hand, these two-way headsets are designed to be comfortable, attractive and lightweight, making them ideal for wearing for a longer period of time. And they are aesthetically appealing for any audience, including top VIPs. Therefore, your team and your guests will be able to focus on the information and their tasks with complete comfort and without any distractions. As a result, you will notice increased comprehension of your message with outside visitors and a higher level of efficiency and safety in your production areas as well as food safety levels.
2. Staff Communication Systems
A multi-channel staff communication system is another good way to ensure food safety in your factory. One example is a system that has fifteen channels, making it great for multiple employees, workgroups, and team communications, and has a transmission range of up to half a mile. It also has a two-way radio technology with privacy and long talk settings that allow you to speak without being interrupted. These types of headsets are sometimes outfitted with non-porous vinyl, which means you can disinfect them after each use.
Such a communication system also comes in handy in factories that follow COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. Not only can your employees stay safe by putting more space between each other, but their communication will remain clear and easy. That way, they will be able to focus on production and other safety guidelines.
3. Wireless Systems
Clarity of message is crucial to maintaining the necessary level of food safety in your plant. Good quality wireless systems provide clear, crisp sound, effective transmitting range, and great battery time. Furthermore, they are easy to use, maintain and store. Wireless systems also feature audio guide systems that make sure you don’t have to be worried about machinery being too loud and interrupting important information.
The past two years have taught us that food manufacturers who want to thrive despite both predictable and unexpected challenges need to respond and adapt quickly. A huge part of that flexibility comes from the willingness to accept changes and new tools that modern technology brings. So, from cloud computing to barcodes and better headsets, any step you take to improve communication in your factory will undoubtedly pay off in the long run.
The food and beverage industry has seen a big push for digital transformation over the past several years. Consumers and regulators alike are demanding increasingly high levels of safety and traceability across the global supply chain—driving food manufacturers to modernize their approach to quality control.
Now, many are looking to retire outdated software or inefficient paper-based systems that limit visibility across their production lines, plants and supply chains. They are exploring modern tools that enable proactive quality and safety monitoring. And fortunately, cloud technology is making this shift easier than ever.
Cloud-based quality management solutions offer simple deployment, rapid scalability and low up-front costs—breaking down many of the barriers to digital transformation. Food manufacturers gain anytime, anywhere access to critical resources needed to maintain product quality, ensure compliance and drive continuous improvement across their organizations.
To make it all possible, food manufacturers should select a cloud-based solution that offers the following features and tools.
1. A centralized data repository for improved visibility, compliance and collaboration
In a traditional manufacturing environment, quality and process data are locked away in paper files, Excel spreadsheets, or on-premises software. These data silos prevent manufacturers from monitoring enterprise-wide quality performance, and inhibit data sharing with external parties across the supply chain.
But the cloud can break down those silos. Cloud solutions provide a single, unified data repository where food manufacturers can standardize and centralize quality data—from all processes, production lines, and sites in their enterprise, as well as from suppliers, co-packers and third-party producers.
The resulting “big picture” view of quality enables food companies to:
Perform enterprise-wide analyses to pinpoint problem areas, identify best practices, and prioritize resources—ultimately improving quality and compliance across the entire organization.
Verify ongoing regulatory compliance and enforce accountability for all required checks and tests.
View supplier data in real time to prevent food safety issues and ensure incoming ingredients meet quality standards before they are ever shipped. Only the highest-quality ingredients get accepted and incorporated into products.
Monitor supplier performance to better manage suppliers and prevent supply chain disruptions.
Collaborate with contract manufacturers and packers to make sure they uphold quality standards and protect the brand.
2. Real-time SPC for proactive response on the plant floor
A preventative approach to quality and safety just isn’t possible when using manual methods for data collection and analysis. Operators spend valuable time recording data with a pencil and paper, then sift through page after page of control charts—on top of all their other daily responsibilities. It’s easy to see how mistakes could be made and production issues could be missed.
Quality teams are also at a disadvantage, reviewing old data about products that have already come off the production line. Overall, everyone operates in “firefighting” mode. They try to fix one issue after another, but it’s often already too late. Some problems may not be spotted until final inspection, if even caught at all. Manufacturers end up dealing with defective products, wasted resources, and damaging recalls.
The cloud transforms how food manufacturers collect and analyze quality data. Cloud-based statistical process control (SPC) software can automatically collect measurement values from a variety of data sources, then monitor processes in real time. When the software detects specification or statistical violations, automated alarms instantly alert key personnel. The appropriate teams can take immediate action to correct any issue before it gets out of hand.
In addition, food manufacturers can put up further safeguards on the plant floor with “workflows.” Essentially, these are prescriptive guides for responding to quality issues, predefined in the cloud-based quality solution. They help all employees respond consistently and effectively to specific problems, and then document the corrective actions taken. These responses can then be analyzed across an entire company, allowing manufacturers to spot trends and prevent reoccurring issues.
Ultimately, operators and quality personnel can stay on top of potential problems and prevent unsafe or defective goods from reaching customers—without having to manually monitor every line, in every plant, around the clock.
3. Timed data collections to keep everyone on the same page
Routine sampling and quality checks are critical for food safety and compliance with regulatory and industry-specific standards. But how can manufacturers ensure required checks are completed according to schedule? After all, the plant floor is a busy place and where it’s easy for operators to get sidetracked tackling other issues.
Here, cloud-based quality systems can help. These solutions enable manufacturers to set up timed data collections, which send automated notifications to remind operators when it’s time to perform HACCP, CCP, and other critical quality and safety checks. Operators can stay focused on production, without having to watch the clock or worry about missing a check. Plant supervisors also get alerts if a data collection is missed—no matter where they are working—so they can keep everyone on top of compliance.
4. Digital reporting to make audits a breeze
Every manufacturer dreads the auditing process. It is time consuming and resource intensive, adding another layer of stress and complexity to the already complex nature of food production. Those that rely on paper records and spreadsheets usually struggle to piece together and produce auditor-requested information. And failed audits can have major consequences.
Instead, quality records and other compliance documentation can be digitized, stored and made quickly accessible via the cloud. This makes it easy for food companies to pull historical data for specific timeframes. Reports can be produced in just minutes to complete regulatory, third-party certification, or internal audits—rather than the days or weeks it would typically take to put together a report from a complicated trail of paper.
5. Lot genealogy for improved traceability and recall response
Recalls are another big source of stress for food manufacturers. After all, food quality or safety incidents that result in a recall not only hurt profits and brand reputation, but also put the health and lives of consumers at risk. Fortunately, recalls can be mitigated or avoided through better traceability.
Cloud-based quality solutions can help food companies trace raw ingredient lot codes through the manufacturing process and supply chain. With all quality data stored in that centralized cloud repository mentioned earlier, manufacturers can generate genealogical “trees” showing the relationship between incoming ingredients and outgoing products.
This information in critical for preventing and responding to product recalls. If a safety issue is found within a specific ingredient lot, for example, manufacturers can quickly identify output lots where those ingredients were used. They can prevent those finished lots from being released, or in the worst-case scenario, remove those lots from store shelves in a swift, targeted recall.
A Tactical Approach to Digital Transformation
Looking at the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint, it’s clear to see that the industry at large is heading towards a new digital age. Food manufacturers shouldn’t wait to take the first steps, and cloud-based quality can get them on the right path.
While any big change comes with hesitancy, a tactical approach can help ease any fears. Some food manufacturers have started with small-scale projects, deploying cloud-based quality solution to monitor a single process or production line. Leadership teams and employees alike can see how quality in the cloud benefits everyone at all levels of their organization—and then deploy the solution on a wider scale. It is a great way to successfully introduce new digital technology and lay the foundation for future transformation.
In today’s digital-first world, it might be surprising for those outside of the food manufacturing industry to learn that paper and pen are still considered state-of-the-art documentation tools. Answering food safety and quality questions such as: “What was the underlying cause of this customer complaint?” or “What caused the production halt this morning?” still require hours of research across paper documents, emails and spreadsheets. Maybe even the odd phone call or text message.
The good news is that many food safety and quality problems can be solved by leveraging modern-day technology. The challenge is taking that first step. By applying the following best practices, organizations can take small steps that lead to substantial benefits, including optimized food safety and quality programs, happier employees and safer operations.
Digital Transformation Best Practices
What if all the information food safety professionals require could be accessible through one unified interface and could proactively point to actions that should be taken? It can, with the right mindset and the right strategy.
While there is no “flip of a switch” to become digitally empowered, best practices exist for where to start. And, early adopters are injecting innovation into food safety programs with simple, but powerful technology.
Too often, food safety professionals push forward on a path to digital transformation by evaluating software and business applications against features and/or cost. But before taking this approach, it is important to look at existing food safety programs, identify where incremental improvements can be made and determine the potential return on a new technology investment.
Self-awareness is a beneficial leadership skill, but it’s also the key driver in understanding an organization’s business needs for food safety. Food safety professionals need to get real about common pain points, such as inconsistent or insufficient data, non-standardized practices, and delayed reporting. This is not the time to gloss over problems with processes or tools. Only by clearly documenting the challenges upfront will organizations be able to find the best solutions.
As one example, a common pain point is managing different formats and timing of reporting across facilities. See if this sounds familiar: “Well, Dallas sends an Excel spreadsheet every week, but Toledo only sends it on a monthly basis, while Wichita sends it monthly most of the time, but it’s never in the same format.”
Start out by identifying similar problems to help define the business objective, which will help determine how technology can be most effectively applied.
Eat, Sleep, Food Safety, Repeat
Food safety processes should constantly evolve to enable continued improvements in food safety outcomes. With that in mind, it’s helpful to dust off the corporate SOP and review it, especially if an organization is moving to a digital program. A common mistake many food manufacturers make is asking technology providers to configure an application based solely off the corporate protocol, only to discover at go-live that users don’t follow that protocol.
To avoid this situation, consider the following questions:
Why are food safety professionals not completing processes by the book?
Is that similar with every site?
Why has it been that way for so long?
Why did food safety professionals start to stray?
By locking down processes and identifying the desired way forward, leaders can configure a new application with the latest information and updated decisions. At a minimum, this step will help identify current issues that should be addressed, which can become measurable goals for the use of the new technology, ideally emphasizing the most pressing problems.
Less is More
Digital transformation doesn’t always need to become a “fix-all” project. Instead, it may revolve around a single operational initiative or business decision. For example, food safety professionals often maintain a spreadsheet with usernames and passwords for countless applications, some of which overlap in functionality and/or require a separate login for each facility. This is not only a safety concern, it’s an easy entry point when moving to a digital approach.
Consolidation of applications is a natural step from the standpoint of feasibility and fiscal responsibility. So, look for digital transformation opportunities that result in fewer applications and more consolidation.
Don’t Rush It
While digital transformation is inevitable, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should be an organization’s digital strategy. Unfortunately, the decision to go digital is often made, and a go-live date chosen, before determining what transformation requires, which is a clear-cut recipe for failure.
Technical vendors should play a key role in developing an effective implementation strategy, including sharing onboarding, planning, configuration and go-live best practices.
While technology is here to help the world become smarter about food safety, it is not here to replace human experience. Food safety leaders should continue to augment processes through supplemental technologies, rather than view technology as a full takeover of current approaches.
Barriers to entry for digital transformation are being lowered, as the ease of adoption of the underlying technologies continues to advance and access via cloud-based applications improves.
What to Do With All This Data? 5 Outcomes Food Manufacturers Can Achieve
Food manufacturers have benefited from digitally transforming environmental monitoring programs (EMPs) using workflow and analytics tools in a variety of ways. In the end, what matters is that the resulting data access and usability enables new insights and accelerates decisions that result in reduced risk and improved quality. Keep in mind these key outcomes that food manufacturers can achieve from digital transformation.
Enhancing an internal audit framework with digital tools will greatly reduce the burden of ensuring compliance for schemes such as BRC, SQF and FSSC food safety standards. Flexible report formats and filtering capabilities empower users with the right information at the right time.
Imagine, no more sifting manually through binders of CoA’s and test records to find a needle in a haystack. Exposing teams to a digital means of performing internal audits will not only boost confidence to handle requests from an auditor but will also help drive continuous improvement by providing easier access to insights about the effectiveness of internal policies. At the same time, digital tools will help ensure that only the required information is shared, reducing confusion and uncertainty as well as audit time and cost.
Outcome #2: Proactive Alerting and Automated Reporting
Threshold-based report alerts are an excellent way to reduce the noise often associated with notification systems. Providing quality and safety managers with automated alerts of scheduled maintenance or pending test counts can help them focus on activities that need attention, without distractions.
The benefit of threshold-based reporting is that it is a “set it and forget it” method. While regular “Monday Reports” are still a necessity, alerts and reports can be generated only when attention is needed for anomalies. A great example of this is being able to set proactive alerts for test counts in a facility that are approaching nonconformance levels. Understanding the corrective action requirements needed to control an environmental issue before it impacts quality, production and unplanned sanitation measures is a critical component of risk management and brand protection. In addition, reports can be automatically generated and delivered on a regular schedule to help meet reporting needs without spending time collecting data.
In other words—imagine a world where data comes and finds users when needed, rather than having to search for it in a binder or spreadsheet. Digital tools can provide email reports showing that a threshold has (or has not) been met and link the user directly to the information needed to take action. This is called “actionable information” and is something to consider when deploying technology within an organization’s food safety program processes.
Outcome #3: Optimize Performance with Tracking, Trending and Drilling
The Pareto Principle specifies that for many outcomes, about 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. Historical data that is digitized can be used to quickly identify the root cause of top failures in a facility in order to drive process improvements. Knowing where to invest money will help avoid the cost of failure and aid in the prevention of a recall situation.
Dashboards are a powerful tool that organizations can use to understand the risk level across facilities to make better, data-driven decisions. Reports can be configured through a thoughtful dashboard setup that enables users to easily identify hot spots and trends, drill down to specific test locations, and enable clear communication to stakeholders. Figure 1 provides an example of a heat map that can be used to speed response and take corrective actions when needed.
Outcome #4: Simplified Data Governance and Interoperability
Smarter food safety will drive standardization of data formats, which allows information to flow seamlessly between internal and external systems. One of the major benefits of shifting away from paper-based solutions is the ability to be proactive to reduce risk and cost. FSQA managers, within and across facilities, can benefit from a 360-degree operational view that reveals hidden connections between information silos that exist in the plant and across the organization. This includes:
Product tracing through product testing to environment monitoring and sanitation efforts
Tracing back a product quality issue reported from a customer to the sanitation efforts
Understanding why compliance is on track but quality results aren’t correcting
Outcome #5: Reduce the Cost of High Turnover
Successful GMPs, SSOPs and a HACCP program require leaders that continually ensure that employees are properly trained, which can be difficult with high turnover rates. To address this challenge, digital tools can aid in providing easily accessible documentation to empower users and reduce the cost, time and risk associated with having to re-train new employees on the EMP process. While training cannot be replaced with technology, it can be accelerated.
For example, testing locations within facilities can be documented with images and related information enabling new employees to visually see the floorplan and relevant testing protocols with accompanying video and click-through visualization of underlying data. Additionally, corrective action protocols can be enhanced with videos and standardized form inputs to ensure proper data is being collected at all times.
The Path Ahead
As the digital transformation of the food safety industry continues, food manufacturers should seek out and apply proven best practices to make the process as efficient and effective for their organization as possible. By avoiding common pitfalls, companies can achieve transformation objectives and realize substantial benefits from more easily accessible and actionable food safety data.
COVID-19 has been a sharp wake-up call for many food manufacturers in the need for resilient production environments that can readily respond to large and sudden changes, including fluctuations in demand and disruptive external events. This means being able to optimize operations for the following:
Efficiency: Where you can achieve constant output even when given fewer inputs—such as in workforce availability or resources. This was especially important when the pandemic caused widespread supply shortages, as well as staffing shortages due to social distancing measures.
Productivity: When you can ensure that, given the amount of available input (i.e., raw ingredients, manpower, equipment availability), you can maintain a consistent output to meet demand in the marketplace.
Flexibility: Where you can rapidly and intelligently adapt your processes in the face of change, in ways that are in the best interest of your business, the supply chain, and the consumers who purchase and trust in your products.
That trust is paramount, as manufacturers must continue to uphold quality and safety standards—especially during a time when public health is of the upmost importance. But between operational challenges and managing product quality, that’s a lot for manufacturers to wade through during a crisis.
To navigate the current COVID reality and improve response to future events, more organizations are looking to harness the power of data to enable agile decision-making and, in turn, build more resilient production environments.
Harnessing the Power of Data
The key to harnessing data for agile decisions is to aggregate end-to-end process information and make it available in real time. When you can achieve that, it’s possible to run analytics and derive timely insights into every facet of production. Those insights can be used to increase efficiency, productivity and flexibility—as well as ensure product quality and safety—even amidst upheaval.
When looking at solutions to aggregate data from a single site—or better yet, multiple sites—all roads lead to the cloud. Namely, cloud-based quality intelligence solutions can decouple the data from physical locations—such as paper checklists, forms, or supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and human-machine interfaces (HMI) systems—and centralize what’s collected digitally in a unified repository. The data can then be accessed, analyzed, and consumed by those who need actionable insights from anywhere, at any time, and on any device, making cloud an ideal solution for connecting on-site operators and remote employees.
An Opportunity for Broader Transformation
In migrating to the cloud, manufacturers open the opportunity to break away from the legacy, manual processes of yesterday and transition to more nimble, digitally enabled environments of tomorrow. For example, manual processes are often highly dependent on individual operator knowledge, experience and judgement. As the pandemic has shown, such institutional knowledge can be lost when employees become ill, or are unavailable due to self-isolation or travel restrictions, presenting a risk to operational efficiency and productivity. But if that valuable institutional knowledge were captured and codified in a quality intelligence solution as predefined workflows and prescriptive instructions, then a manufacturer could more easily move their resources and personnel around as necessary and find comfort knowing that processes will be executed according to best practices.
For many organizations, this would be a remarkable transformation in the ways of working, where data and digital technologies can augment human capacity and flexibility. Take for instance, in traditional production environments, a lot of human effort is spent on monitoring lines to catch process deviations or events like machine anomalies or quality issues. Using real-time data, next-generation solutions can take on that burden and continuously monitor what’s happening on the plant floor—only alerting relevant teams when an issue arises and they need to intervene. Manufacturers can thereby redeploy people to other tasks, while minimizing the amount of resources necessary to manage product quality and safety during daily production and in the event of disruption.
Ensuring Quality Upstream and Downstream
One company that has succeeded in digital transformation is King & Prince, a manufacturer of breaded, battered and seasoned seafood. When the company digitized its manufacturing processes, it centralized the quality data from all points of origin in a single database. The resulting real-time visibility enables King & Prince to monitor quality on more than 100 processes across three U.S. plants, as well as throughout a widespread network of global suppliers.
With this type of real-time visibility, a company can work with suppliers to correct any quality issues before raw materials are shipped to the United States, which directly translates to a better final product. This insight also helps plant-based procurement managers determine which suppliers to use. Within its own plants, operators receive alerts during production if there are any variations in the data that may indicate inconsistencies. They can thereby stop the process, make necessary adjustments, and use the data again to confirm when everything is back on track.
During finished product inspections, the company can also review the captured data to determine if they need to finetune any processes upstream and respond sooner to prevent issues from making it downstream to the consumer level. Overall, the company is able to better uphold its quality and safety standards, with the number of customer complaints regarding its seafood products dropping to less than one per million pounds sold year over year—and that’s all thanks to the harnessing of data in a digitally enabled production environment.
There’s No Time Like the Present
In truth, technologies like the cloud and quality intelligence solutions, and even the concept of digital transformation, aren’t new. They’ve been on many company agendas for some time, but just haven’t been a high priority. But when the pandemic hit, organizations were suddenly faced with the vulnerabilities of their long-held operational processes and legacy technologies. Now, with the urgency surrounding the need for resilient production environments, these same companies are thinking about how to tactically achieve digital transformation in the span of a few weeks or months rather than years.
Yet while digital transformation may sound like a tremendous initiative with high risks and expenses, it’s more tangible than some may think. For example, cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions offer flexible subscription-based models that keep costs low on top of rapid scalability. Digital transformation doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor either. In fact, it can be better to progress incrementally, starting first with the manufacturing areas that are most in need or have the most issues. This minimizes unnecessary risk, makes digital transformation more achievable and realistic over short timeframes, and avoids overwhelming already maxed out operational and IT teams.
All things must pass. The pandemic will eventually be over. But in its wake will be a permanent legacy on not just society, but also on the manufacturing sector. In my opinion, digital transformation is a fundamental basis for building resilience into the modern food production environment. Now, more than ever, is the time to address that opportunity head on.
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing disconnects between food supply and demand. While some may be noticing these issues on a broader scale for the first time, the reality is that there have been challenges in our food supply chains for decades. A lack of accurate data and information sharing is the core of the problem and had greater impact due to the pandemic. Outdated technologies are preventing advancements and efficiencies, resulting in the paradox of mounting food insecurity and food waste.
To bridge this disconnect, the food industry needs to implement innovative AI and machine learning technologies to prevent shortages, overages and waste as COVID-19 subsides. Solutions that enable data sharing and collaboration are essential to build more resilient food supply chains for the future.
Data-sharing technologies that can help alleviate these problems have been under development for decades, but food supply chains have been slow to innovate compared to other industries. By reviewing the top four data-sharing technologies used in food industry and the year they were introduced to food supply chains, it’s evident that the pace of technology innovation and adoption needs to accelerate to advance the industry.
A History of Technology Adoption in the Food Industry
The Barcode – 19741
We’re all familiar with the barcode—that assemblage of lines translated into numbers and letters conveying information about a product. When a cashier scans a barcode, the correct price pops up on the POS, and the sale data is recorded for inventory management. Barcodes are inexpensive and easy to implement. However, they only provide basic information, such as a product’s name, type, and price. Also, while you can glean information from a barcode, you can’t change it or add information to it. In addition, barcodes only group products by category—as opposed to radio-frequency identification (RFID), which provides a different code for every single item.
EDI First Multi-Industry Standards – 19812
Electronic data interchange (EDI) is just what it sounds like—the concept of sharing information electronically instead of on paper. Since EDI standardizes documents and the way they’re transferred, communication between business partners along the supply chain is easier, more efficient, and human error is reduced. To share information via EDI, however, software is required. This software can be challenging for businesses to implement and requires IT expertise to handle updates and maintenance.
RFID in the Food Supply Chain – 20033
RFID and RFID tags are encoded with information that can be transmitted to a reader device via radio waves, allowing businesses to identify and track products and assets. The reader device translates the radio waves into usable data, which then lands in a database for tracking and analysis.
RFID tags hold a lot more data than barcodes—and data is accessible in remote locations and easily shared along the supply chain to boost transparency and trust. Unlike barcode scanners, which need a direct line of sight to a code, RFID readers can read multiple tags at once from any direction. Businesses can use RFID to track products from producer to supplier to retailer in real time.
In 2003, Walmart rolled out a pilot program requiring 100 of its suppliers to use RFID technology by 2005.3 However, the retail giant wasn’t able to scale up the program. While prices have dropped from 35–40 cents during Walmart’s pilot to just 5 cents each as of 2018, RFID tags are still more expensive than barcodes.4 They can also be harder to implement and configure. Since active tags have such a long reach, businesses also need to ensure that scammers can’t intercept sensitive data.
Blockchain – 20175
A blockchain is a digital ledger of blocks (records) used to record data across multiple transactions. Changes are recorded in real-time, making the history unfalsifiable and transparent. Along the food supply chain, users can tag food, materials, compliance certificates and more with a set of information that’s recorded on the blockchain. Partners can easily follow the item through the physical supply chain, and new information is recorded in real-time.
Blockchain is more secure and transparent, less vulnerable to fraud, and more scalable than technologies like RFID. When paired with embedded sensors and RFID tags, the tech offers easier record-keeping and better provenance tracking, so it can address and help solve traceability problems. Blockchain boosts trust by reducing food falsification and decreasing delays in the supply chain.6
On the negative side, the cost of transaction processing with blockchain is high. Not to mention, the technology is confusing to many, which hinders adoption. Finally, while more transparency is good news, there’s such a thing as too much transparency; there needs to be a balance, so competitors don’t have too much access to sensitive data.
Cloud-Based Demand Forecasting – 2019 to present7
Cloud-based demand forecasting uses machine learning and AI to predict demand for various products at different points in the food supply chain. This technology leverages other technologies on this list to enhance communication across supply chain partners and improve the accuracy of demand forecasting, resulting in less waste and more profit for the food industry. It enables huge volumes of data to be used to predict demand, including past buying patterns, market changes, weather, events and holidays, social media input and more to create a more accurate picture of demand.
The alternative to cloud-based demand forecasting that is still in use today involves Excel or manual spreadsheets and lots of number crunching, which are time-intensive and prone to human error. This manual approach is not a sustainable process, but AI, machine learning and automation can step in to resolve these issues.
Obtaining real-time insights from a centralized, accurate and accessible data source enables food suppliers, brokers, distributors, brands and retailers to share information and be nimble, improving their ability to adjust supply in response to factors influencing demand.8 This, in turn, reduces cost, time and food waste, since brands can accurately predict how much to produce down to the individual SKU level, where to send it and even what factors might impact it along the way.
Speeding Up Adoption
As illustrated in Figure 1, the pace of technology change in the food industry has been slow compared to other industries, such as music and telecommunications. But we now have the tools, the data and the brainpower to create more resilient food supply chains.
Given the inherent connectivity of partners in the food supply chain, we now need to work together to connect information systems in ways that give us the insights needed to deliver exactly the rights foods to the right places, at the right time. This will not only improve consumer satisfaction but will also protect revenue and margins up and down food supply chains and reduce global waste.
Around the world, countries are beginning to take tentative steps toward a return to normalcy following months of stay-at-home mandates and other restrictions in light of COVID-19. Slowly, we’re starting to see employees return to their offices, retail stores open their doors, and restaurants welcome back patrons. However, many will find themselves in a world dramatically different from the one they left before quarantine.
Namely, on top of social distancing and disinfection measures to control further spread of the virus, entire industries are re-examining their legacy processes and systems—especially ones that presented operational challenges at the pandemic’s outbreak—the food manufacturing industry included.
In truth, food manufacturers have gone to great lengths to maintain productivity and output to meet demand throughout the pandemic. But they have done so in the face of unprecedented circumstances, with many plants operating with limited workforces and key employees like quality professionals and plant managers shifted to remote work. Lacking connectivity between those on the plant floor and at home due to long-held manual processes, a growing number of manufacturers must now take a hard look at their quality and safety programs and embrace digital tools.
A Wake-Up Call for Digital Transformation
Most technological investments in food manufacturing over the past several decades have centered on electro-mechanical automation designed to scale up the physical production process. Fewer investments, however, have been made on the equally important data-driven, decision-making process necessary for ensuring optimal performance, food quality and safety.
Even in the most heavily automated plants, it’s not uncommon to find manufacturers managing quality through manually updated spreadsheets, which are often only reviewed after the fact, when it’s too late for remedial correction. There are unfortunately also those who still rely on paper checklists, making it practically impossible to take proactive action on collected process data—much less get the information in front of remote quality professionals and managers. Meanwhile, others have gone as far as adopting software solutions for quality data management and process control, but these tend to be on-premises systems that employees can’t access outside of the four walls of the plant.
We have also seen many examples where, due to workforce restrictions and availability, employees from other parts of the manufacturing business (e.g., R&D, IT, and back-office teams) have been brought in to perform plant-floor activities like quality and food safety checks. The goal has been to prevent impediments to production output, just when demand has increased substantially. But ensuring that these employees perform the checks on time and in the correct way—with little time for training or coaching—has left many plant leaders in a precarious position.
The challenges seen with these capabilities and enabling geographically dispersed teams to work together through the pandemic have been a wake-up call of sorts for digital transformation. Manufacturers are coming to the realization that they’ll need data accessibility, actionability and adaptability along the road to recovery and in the post-COVID-19 world. And with social distancing and other workplace precautions expected to continue for the foreseeable future, the imperative is all the more urgent.
The Solution Lies in the Cloud
To digitally transform quality and safety programs today, food manufacturers should prioritize investment in the cloud. Notably, cloud-based quality management systems offer a way to standardize and centralize critical process information, as well as tools to empower employees at all levels of the enterprise.
For plant-floor operators struggling to keep up on account of reduced workforce sizes, such solutions can automate routine yet important activities for quality assurance, including data collection, process monitoring and reporting. If a team member needs to cover a different shift or unfamiliar task, role-based dashboards can help them to see required actions, while process workflows can provide guidance to ensure proper steps are taken even with a limited workforce. Further, automated alerts can provide timely notifications of any issues—whether it be a missed data collection or an actual food quality or safety concern present in the data.
Perhaps most importantly during the pandemic and for the post-COVID-19 world, the cloud makes critical quality data instantly and easily accessible from anywhere, at any time. Quality professionals, plant managers, and other decision-makers can continue to monitor and analyze real-time process data, as well as observe performance trends to prevent issues from escalating—all safely from home.
The scalability of cloud-based solutions also streamlines deployment so organizations can rapidly implement and standardize on a single system across multiple lines and sites. In doing so, it becomes possible to run cross-plant analyses to identify opportunities for widescale process improvement and align best practices for optimal quality control at all sites. This ability to understand what’s happening in production—through real-time data—to enact agile, real-world change is a hallmark of successful digital transformation.
An Investment for Whatever the Future Holds
Ultimately, investments in secure cloud-based quality management and the broader digital transformation of manufacturing operations are investments in not only perseverance during the pandemic, but also resilience for the future. Food producers and manufacturers who can readily access and make informed decisions from their data will be the ones best equipped to pivot and adjust operations in times of disruption and uncertainty. And while it’s unclear what the future holds for the world, the food industry, and COVID-19, it’s safe to say we likely won’t see a full return to normalcy but the emergence of a new—and in many ways better—normal, born out of digital solutions and smarter ways of thinking about quality data collection and monitoring.
Food manufacturers, what’s keeping you up at night? What’s the one issue that could damage your reputation so badly that you lose customers? The answer: A food safety crisis that at best, requires your products to be recalled and at worst, puts valued consumers at risk.
Similarly, if you’re a global supply chain manager, what’s your number one worry? The answer: Maintaining continuous compliance with industry standards, meeting increased regulation requirements, or maybe it’s a key supplier failing their BRC audit?
Whatever it is, we all know food manufacturers are under increased pressure, facing multiple internal and external challenges in an ever-changing complex environment. Challenges such as price volatility, stronger competition, increasing customer demands, complex supply chains and globalization are all taking their toll.
Furthermore, to add to this increasing pressure, organizations are still relying on paper-based systems and manual processes to help manage their risk, quality and compliance, and even their environmental health and safety (EHS)! This approach is inefficient, makes the audit and compliance process costly and difficult to scale, while compromising quality and complicating traceability. It’s time to take advantage of the digital age and relieve the pain and pressure of traditional risk and compliance management with a SaaS (software as a service) solution.
What is SaaS (Software as a Service)?
SaaS providers use the internet to deliver their bespoke software offering, usually in the form of a subscription-based service with a monthly or annual fee. The main benefit of SaaS is the cloud, being cloud-based software, upgrades and fixes are managed by the software provider, reducing or eliminating the need for an IT infrastructure—all your data is readily available in real time, on one centralized platform. SaaS is delivering more visibility and mobility without hassling organizations with the details and streamlining software integration across the globe.
SaaS solutions have become a game changer in modern risk management, and the following points illustrate why.
Speed of Deployment
Food and beverage manufacturers require a SaaS solution for multi-site global deployment with complete local management. A SaaS solution will graft onto your business processes immediately. No additional IT hardware should be needed, which means you don’t waste your time procuring and installing an IT infrastructure for multiple sites to benefit. It’s important to remember that the food and beverage industry is moving fast, so if your chosen SaaS solution requires months or years to implement, you’re talking to the wrong people. There is a common saying at my company: “We don’t count in months or years, we count in hours and minutes”.
Providers that offer traditional, on-premise solutions, require extensive configuration and bespoke coding to map to the client’s needs. Long rollout and deployment cycles are inherently expensive to maintain and have poor user experience. This is the reason most consumers revert to Excel/Word and Sharepoint, ultimately losing the ability to manage consistently at scale across their real estate. With an RPM (risk and performance management) SaaS solution you can expect a fast deployment with a comprehensive and configurable enterprise workflow from day one.
Staying Up to Date Is Automatic
Your chosen SaaS provider manage your entire solution from their side, which means upgrades, fixes and customization requests are immediate and automatic. Again, reducing or eliminating, the resource needs of an IT infrastructure. Organizations will have the advantage of immediately being able to utilize the latest features the SaaS solution has to offer. These upgrades will often be driven by feedback from users as organizational and industry requirements change. On-going system development will be crucial to staying in, and assuring, compliance and risk mitigation.
As a food manufacturer, it is important that your SaaS solution comes with a comprehensive document control library—a feature that will always be automatically updated by your SaaS provider. When you are conducting assessments in the field, many users require the ability to refer back to specific document types such as manuals, procedures, work instructions and the latest standards or regulations. These documents should be all managed by your SaaS provider, with teams consistently reviewing and updating important industry documentation on the platform for any user out in the field.
Ease of Use
Proofs of concept are crucial. Living in a world where we have an abundant amount of choice, organizations need to know their chosen SaaS solution has the ability to meet requirements and demands of both the organization and industry. This is made easy with SaaS, allowing organizations to test the software functionality in advance of purchase. Even for large food manufacturers, SaaS offerings can be used to test the software before it is purchased, and there should be no limit to the amount of trial users. The right risk and performance platform will also allow your team to upload specific templates, allowing new users to be familiar with assessments provided on the platform, easing your transition to a digital format.
Mobility and 360o Visibility
For further flexibility, popular SaaS providers will offer their solution in mobile format. Assessments conducted on the platform should be seamlessly synchronized between smartphone, tablet and desktop, allowing you to start an assessment on one platform and then pick it up on another. Users are no longer restricted to one location and can access their robust platform from any device, online or offline. We know that many companies are operating in
harsh environments, whether it’s the scorching temperatures of the Sahara desert or the blistering wind chills of northern Canada—your SaaS solution needs to come equipped with the right tools. By utilizing SaaS mobile offerings, organizations gain full visibility of their risk profile, making room for a culture of continuous compliance whether they’re in the field or back at the office.
Scalability at a Lower Cost
Implementing a SaaS solution means all your data is securely stored in the cloud. This provides scalability to match organizational growth strategies. Food manufacturers can add more users as their business grows without ever thinking about changing the hardware or requiring a full IT department for assistance. However, although SaaS offerings are provided at a lower cost than traditional solutions, each platform has its own rates, so shop around for a solution that will best suit your budget and requirements.
Cloud-based software models have made risk, quality and compliance more affordable and flexible, considerably improving and streamlining business processes worldwide. Next time you are evaluating a SaaS solution for your food and beverage organizations, remember, the providers are staking their own survival on the software platform working. Whether it’s the protection, security, availability or performance of your data. Providers want to make their platforms a hassle-free and secure option for any food manufacturer looking to thrive in this demanding industry.
Relieve the pain and pressure of traditional risk and compliance management: Realize your investment from day one.
We’ve all heard about the latest disrupters in the retail supply chain, like the Internet of Things, wearable computers, cognitive analytics, machine learning and even the new value chain in which these technologies intercede to provide a better and more accurate shopping experience for consumers. There are also developments like digital fabrication that interacts with both the consumer and appliances to improve the way product gets to the consumer from the point of production.
Technology disrupters can fundamentally change supply chains, destroying existing ones and creating new ones. Other disruptions can be caused by not a single technology but by several new and existing technologies that come together in innovative ways. Smart retailers and their trading partners are working to judge the impact of these technology disrupters before or at least as they occur. They need to be more proactive by investing in key areas of strategy, culture and partnership.
Many of the technology disrupters in food safety are based on the growing ability to apply analytics, including machine learning, to drive a better understanding of and increase the personalized relationships with the consumer, and to glean insight from all the data being collected. Knowing exactly what information shoppers require to feel safe with the products they are buying from you can only help build and maintain a great reputation. Further, analytics help companies predict and address the weakest links on the production floor and in their own extended supply chain to keep those customers free from potentially deadly pathogens.
Cloud computing for the delivery of IT and business processes as digital services is transforming the food safety world through the unprecedented speed and agility it enables for mobile and social engagement. Telling your customers that a recalled product could cause an illness used to require lots of phone calls or even snail mail, but now technologies in the cloud facilitate almost instantaneous messaging of the warning to whole or subsets of a population. This is just one of the ways that everyone from shoppers to business people are changing the way they interact with each other and the way we all do business due to the cloud.
Security in general and cybersecurity specifically are disrupters for companies concerned with food safety, because they can fall prey to sophisticated hackers and other crooks that try to ransom a business’ reputation in the digital world. Think how important it is to protect your own information as well as that of your consumers and customers for payment details and personal data. Now add health data to the mix and you’ll recognize the critical nature of the issue.
All of these technology disrupters have the potential to seriously impair your food safety plans and procedures, but they can also help you better deploy resources to address individual food safety emergencies and ongoing issues. Knowing the impact of the disruption is the first step in addressing it; then you need to develop a plan that helps you take advantage of the positive sides of the disruption and eliminate the negative ones.
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