Manufacturing Software: How Well Do you Know Your System?

Food processors expect more from manufacturing software, and they are getting it.

By David Phillips, Technical Editor

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For many food and beverage processors, it is hard to imagine a time when their companies operated without manufacturing software. For those who do remember, there also would have been no Food Safety Modernization Act to contend with, and no HAACP plans to follow, but there was a truckload of paper work.

In the 21st century, software is central to manufacturing of any scale. Those in charge of food and beverage plants need to consider their system options the same way they measure the value of a pump, a mixer or a fleet of delivery trucks.

"With all of the new regulations for food safety and traceability, a five-year-old solution that has not been updated to cover the latest regulations could be missing critical requirements," says Jack Payne, vice president of Atlanta-based CDC Software (www.cdcsoftware.com). "In order to stay updated with current requirements and trends, food manufacturers should keep current on releases and not fall behind."

As food processors compare ERP systems, and the relative merits of cloud-based and on-premise operation, there are several factors that are probably top of mind. These include mobile and remote accessibility, speed of operations (particularly speed related to traceability), support for procedural programs like HACCP and accountability for co-products and bi-products.

An enterprise resource planning (ERP) system allows a company to integrate all operations and resources through one program. This is the most common single solution software system used by manufacturers. It can stand alone or interface with a customer relationship management (CRM) system, as well as separate function systems such as warehouse, transportation and logistics systems. ERPs emerged in the 1990s as an outgrowth of material requirements planning (MRP) systems.

So, have most food manufacturers gone to a single ERP?

"The food industry is not that sophisticated in its use of automation and software," says Prashant Rayendran, chief operating officer at Pilgrim Software (www.pilgrimsoftware.com), Tampa, Fla. "Many still are using old mainframe systems and the usual paper-based processes."

Others are focused on single-systems, says Mel Smith, senior account executive with Plex Systems (www.plex.com), Aubrurn Hills, Mich. "Our preference is to provide a comprehensive solution – such as Plex Online – that addresses all of the requirements for the enterprise. When necessary, we provide unique niche functionality, such as import/export shipping or tax maintenance programs through certified partners that specialize in that function delivery."

Plex's flagship products are cloud-based, which means that data is stored online rather than in an on-premise server. Cloud systems offer a much lower overhead in terms of upfront costs and IT personnel, but Plex promotes its cloud solution as a living system, continually updated by users.

"The Food Safety Modernization Act and other regulations have forced the issue by requiring manufacturers to adopt technology that allows them to rapidly identify and track every single ingredient in their products," Smith says. "This provides an ideal environment for cloud computing as it introduces transparency and real-time monitoring of production facilities."

Also cloud-based is IQity Solutions (www.iqitysolutions.com), Wexford, Pa., and its flagship product, IQ-Fusion, a suite of "modules and pods, driven by a dynamic core analytical engine." Reaching all the way to the shop floor, and even into individual machines, it delivers production operations analyses that are correlated with real-time business outcomes and financial measures.

"We try to identify the 'opportunity value gap,' the variations in process controls that lead to cost increases or erosion of profitability," says Lance Roundy, director of integration services. The company was started by David Gustovich, who worked at Canada Post, Tyson Foods and ConAgra (as well as General Dynamics and Emerson Electric) and who saw a way to create semi-stock products and services out of all the unique and custom consulting services he had been providing as a consultant.

Mobile information access is expected by most of us in our day-to-day personal lives. It is just as important for businesses, including food manufacturing.

"The demand for mobility has accelerated dramatically in the last 10 years," says Brooke Webb, director of marketing at Vicinity Manufacturing (www.vicinitymanufacturing.com), Marietta, Ga. "Our latest version, V4, [currently in beta testing] has the ability to be accessed from anywhere. Desktop, iPad, iPhone, inside a CRM system, et cetera."

Other top considerations, especially for food users, include conformity with regulatory record-keeping requirements, recipe formulation, and tracking and cataloging of raw materials. Food manufacturing places even more demand on software, as raw materials are subject to seasonality and other fluctuations.

Another important consideration involves co-products and bi-products, which are nearly a non-issue to some consumer goods sectors. Compared to manufacturers of, say, door handles, food companies are more likely to shift production to address market fluctuations. Today's technology can easily meet those demands.

And what life expectancies can food makers expect from their software? Those offering cloud-based systems say their solutions may be immortal — no need to update to new versions, no servers to upgrade. Otherwise, 5-10 years is about average.

Several sources, including Vicinity's Webb, say manufacturers are now pushing software suppliers to do more.

"I would also say that consumers are getting smarter as well," Webb says. "With buyers having so many choices and information and product reviews at their fingertips … you have to release new functionality and features at least twice a year to stay ahead of the competition."

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