Smart Technology Helping Food Plant Operators Improve Communication

All your employees have smartphones, so use them for training, SOPs and more.

By Chris Bacon, Contributor

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In today's food manufacturing climate, workforce numbers are declining due to attrition and advances in technology, which preclude the need for increased labor. Gone are the labor models of hyper-specialization, which are now being replaced with personnel whose flexibility in operational understanding and support ensure business objectives become realized.

However, there remains a growing need to provide employees with improved communication tools to increase the visibility of the operation. Fortunately, we are in an age where these two situations run parallel in timing, and intersect with business necessity and availability of technology.

Smart technology, such as tablets and smartphones, are becoming more industry-standard. These tools, initially utilized by upper management and corporate leadership personnel, are now found in the hands of all employees and departments influencing the process to monitor, respond, and proactively adjust systems to lower operating costs.

When these tools were first made available, the information that was "pushed" to these devices quite often was outputs of production lines in real-time states (essentially, overall equipment effectiveness, or OEE), allowing managers to evaluate the day's production whether they were on-site or not. But seeing production status in real-time, with perhaps some very limited historical information, managers were basically seeing the result after the fact, without the devices offering any proactive functionality.

Now, however, these devices offer all levels of the production process to become more engaged in influencing the business in real-time, improving standardization, and, in essence, developing the plant floor into a "smart factory" that can monitor trends against standard baselines and pursue corrective actions before critical events occur.

For example, with regard to standardization, devices can be set with software that contains digital standard operating procedures (SOPs), which can automatically populate from the training database upon that device's "awareness" of the machine center where the employee is stationed. Before this, training exercises normally resulted in the most-tenured "legacy expert" training a new operator, but more often than not, the training was never the same for different individuals. Steps were skipped, or the most pressing topics that should start every training session (usually personnel and food safety) were either marginalized or missed entirely.

Now, digital SOPs can be set to establish the same content, in the same order, every time. No step can be skipped until both the trainer and trainee digitally "sign-off" on the training tablet, with training progress archived digitally for retrieval at any time.

With regard to improving your facility into a "smart factory," let's look at a very common TPM (total productive maintenance) approach. In prior programs, maintenance personnel would have an established schedule to evaluate motor bearing wear life by taking a temperature readout of the motor's exterior to identify whether a bearing was going to go out. New technology allows baselines to be set in historical trending fashion (hertz, time of last bearing change-out, etc.). Alarms are pushed to maintenance, engineering or production personnel if a motor's erratic performance is noted against those baselines.

At the very least, an automated work order can be created based on the last bearing change to proactively schedule this downtime activity, thereby eliminating it as a potential critical stoppage and causing costing aggravations from an unplanned event. And, in the spirit of maintaining multiple shift support, these devices can identify which person, from which shift, and which department, is online and currently scheduled at the factory and ultimately who supported the work.

One other aspect to these devices is now all plant personnel receive not only data that is relevant to their individual departmental objectives, but also receive the same data, every time. This ensures everyone is managing against, and to, the same data, improving the continuous improvement process and aligning overall business objectives through individual departmental support.

At end of shift or end of day, emails can automatically be sent to all relevant departmental stakeholders containing production numbers, training updates and progress of workforces, work orders submitted/completed, quality measures, safety items -- any information that your facility feels is important to summarize and archive for the common goal of high quality, low cost per unit.

It is truly an exciting time for manufacturing. Businesses continually evaluate their flexibility and agility to support continual challenges in their respective industries by seeking new and advanced technology solutions to aid in their efforts. But, with limited investment, and unlimited potential, taking advantage of these smart devices, and evaluating where they best fit the operation, will help drive the organization towards new levels of optimization.

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