Wanted: More Muscular Information Systems in Food and Beverage

As food companies upgrade their enterprise software, the opportunity to replace manufacturing systems with a leaner, less costly software layer beckons.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

The old joke in food automation is that the most popular software is Excel. Another leg-slapper maintains MES is short for Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet.

“People can be very creative in adapting Excel for electronic record-keeping,” allows one enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendor, and the cost is a fraction of sophisticated business and manufacturing software. But as an enterprise-wide database, Excel isn’t a practical solution

While the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 merely encouraged food and beverage manufacturers to junk paper and adopt electronic records, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) gives them a strong shove in that direction. Meeting the act’s record-keeping requirements, along with the information and recall-ready demands of retailers and foodservice customers, has made ERP virtually a requirement for doing business in today’s food processing world.

“FSMA really has woken people up and injected a lot of awareness of management’s need for a formal system that provides a view of plant-floor processes and controls, particularly in quality management,” observes Rich Sides, COO of Ultra Consultants (, a Chicago-based firm that guides food companies in the selection and implementation of ERP systems. Unfortunately, many implementations fail to deliver on their business-improvement promise.

Many of the systems currently in place are cobbled together collections of accounting and back-office software like Quickbooks that provide little if any production visibility in an inspection by public health officers, independent auditors from organizations like SQF or BRC or customers themselves. As a result, proactive food executives are upgrading their ERP systems to more closely tie management systems to software that provides a window to what is happening in production.

Recalling a Miami snack food firm, Sides says, “Their entire SQF program was in binders.” Electronic records are essential, and the C suite wants its own copy. “There’s a lot of fear among food manufacturers in terms of compliance,” he adds.

But integrating ERP with processing, quality monitoring, warehousing and other plant-centric systems is easier said than done. “Business systems involve quite simple processes, and the amount of data you’re dealing with is pretty simple. But as soon as you walk out on the factory floor, it’s completely different,” says Colin Elkins, global industry director-process manufacturing with IFS AB (, a global software vendor headquartered in Linkoping, Sweden, and with North American offices in Itasca, Ill.

Moving data back and forth between ERP and the shop floor typically involves an interface with a manufacturing execution system (MES), adding cost and complexity. With application program interfaces (API) embedded in the latest ERP versions and food companies migrating to cloud-based systems, the MES layer can be eliminated, argues Elkins. The API can move data from machines and quality systems to ERP, provided the API knows how the data is structured.

Information on communications protocols isn’t something manufacturing software providers are eager to divulge, however. After all, vendors rely on that proprietary information to lock in future sales.

“I get it: They want to sell you additional software,” ruefully notes Chad Williams, corporate maintenance director at West Liberty Foods ( in West Liberty, Iowa. “Do I disagree with it? Yes.”

Beginning in 2014, Williams has overseen the deployment of a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) from Leading2Lean (L2L) at West Liberty’s four facilities. A year ago, the turkey processor began integration of L2L’s production software at its Tremonton, Utah, deli meat plant.

“We’re starting to get good data from the production team and tying it to the maintenance program,” he says.

That’s because L2L provides a cloud-based API to tie CMMS, warehouse management and other plant systems together. West Liberty’s ERP does not include an API interface, however, so tying together the business and production sides of the enterprise poses an integration challenge.


It’s a challenge some have met with the help of open standards and common communications protocols. Having a deep bench of computer engineers in the organization also helps.

B&R Industrial Automation Corp. (, a division of ABB with offices in Roswell, Ga., skipped the MES layer when implementing an ERP system that communicates directly with process and machine controls, including a storage/retrieval system that supplants a warehouse management layer, as well. Order demand, production scheduling and tracking, materials management, recipe downloads and shipping functions are performed via ERP, reports John Kowal, business development director at the supplier of industrial PCs, process controls and motion controls.

“There is merit to flattening the network and software hierarchy,” says Kowal, but that requires networks that can talk to each other. OPC Unified Architecture is the communication and data-handling standard used by a growing number of industrial organizations, including B&R. Also growing in popularity is the open standard for packaging machines known as PackML, which embodies the ISA 88 standard for batch control. Kowal is a board member of PackML, a working group of OMAC, the Organization for Machine Automation and Control.

Food manufacturers who adopt OPC UA or PackML can circumvent much of the work that has made many systems integrators wealthy. Controls integration requires knowledge of how the memory in a PLC functions, and finding that code in the PLC register is time consuming for an MES integrator and may be impossible for an ERP integrator. PLC suppliers are fine with that, since it locks in end-users for future sales. Those suppliers need to change their business models and make their money in the cloud instead, Kowal maintains.

“The potential is there for direct connect between ERP and floor equipment,” agrees Ultra’s Sides, “but the barriers are standards and investment in the equipment.” Plant-floor modules are embedded into many ERPs already, but they are on the periphery of production and typically do not include quality modules that would enable statistical process control (SPC) at the machine level.

Open ERP systems are particularly important to multi-plant organizations with more than one ERP. Acquisitions at one Ultra client resulted in four separate ERP systems.

Khris Kammer scoffs at the notion of a direct interface between the shop floor and the front office, and it’s not because of his job as a commercial programs manager with Rockwell Automation ( or his position on the board of MESA International, an association of automation specialists with a focus on MES.

“I’m sure an ERP vendor would say that,” says Kammer, “but it’s virtually impossible for ERP to deal with the material shortages, equipment breakdowns, training issues, product contamination issues and other things that happen in the plant every day as they are happening.” MES exists to handle plant-floor disruptions, but those events trigger updates in an ERP system, during which time “you have to wing it, and that’s no way to run a plant,” he says.

His view receives support, even from some ERP suppliers. Skipping the MES level may work for smaller companies, allows Gerry Gray, senior director-product strategy at Plex Systems Inc. (, Auburn Hills, Mich., but large organizations usually run multiple software packages that need MES’s steadying hand.

“I’ve worked with ERP systems without MES and MES without ERP, and I have to say MES brings a lot of value to manufacturing,” Gray states. ERP analytics provide a retrospective view of production deviations, while MES provides real-time analyses that trigger immediate corrective action.

Data glut from PLCs that output data every few milliseconds won’t overwhelm a cloud-based ERP system, he says, but ERP needs MES for an effective quality management system. Real-time OEE reporting, root-cause analysis and reduced waste are just some of the benefits of MES.

Positive change

Regardless of how a company configures its data infrastructure, inventory accuracy is the critical factor in effective information systems, automation experts agree. “Inventory accuracy is a prerequisite and the one common thread driving improvements in order fulfillment, job costing accuracy, recall accuracy and other operational issues,” says Sides.

IFS’s Elkins recalls his own experience as a production manager at a factory where service engineers routinely spirited away parts for outside projects. “I told them they could continue to steal but, please, for the sake of inventory accuracy, write it down,” he says.

“When you implement ERP in a plant, everybody’s job changes,” Elkins adds. “It’s not that people don’t want to change, it’s a matter of managing the change.”

Sufficient funding for staff training on a new system and managing workers’ expectations of when they’ll see the benefits is what separates successful implementations from those that fail to deliver on operational benefits. Another potential stumbling block is an unwillingness to adapt processes and procedures to the chosen ERP system.

The alternative is software modifications that add cost and still may not deliver the desired functionality.

Executive management’s need for production visibility is driving many of the ERP upgrades currently under way, but if management isn’t engaged, projects can quickly go off the rails. If it becomes an IT project, there may be a lack of understanding of the production process itself.

“You need to identify what processes you have in place already and then have an open mind to organizational change to accommodate the system,” believes Jennifer Spanos, director-product management at Aptean Inc. (, an Alpharetta, Ga., software firm serving small and mid-sized food companies.

Old intellectual property never dies, it just changes hands. In 2004, CDC Software acquired Ross Systems, which had built a solid client base in the mid-tier food market. When CDC fell on hard times, Aptean picked up the pieces but did little to keep the Ross system current with new enhancements, admits Jack Payne, vice president-product management & solutions consulting. New ownership now is supporting the ERP with new functionality like support of mobile devices to keep Ross competitive.

This year, Aptean acquired IndustryBuilt, which went to market as JustFood, giving it two ERP options for food & beverage companies.

ProcessPro ( is another mid-tier ERP package that is benefiting from a capital infusion. The St. Cloud, Minn., software firm was acquired two years ago by Open Systems Inc. Open Systems also offers an ERP with a suite of back-office functions such as human resources and payroll. The acquisition led to the addition of a Microsoft cloud solution, though most of its food clients prefer to host programs on a local server, according to Dan Erickson, director-product strategy.

The industry trend is toward cloud-based hosting and analytics in server farms like Microsoft Azure. Instant updates are part of the attraction, and automation specialists are unanimous in touting the data security advantages.

“On-premise applications are continuing to become less attractive, particularly for smaller organizations, because of the IT support needed,” Plex’s Gray observes. Security patches are not added in a timely fashion, inviting a hack. Unless there is no outside data access to a local server, “there is the potential of a security breach,” IFS’s Elkins points out. “How can that be any more secure than a cloud solution?”

Instant software updates are a big part of the cloud’s appeal, West Liberty’s Williams suggests, as are enhancements such as a trace program introduced last year and a module that documents worker training and qualifications. “We’ve only tapped about 25 percent of the CMMS’s potential for maintenance,” he says. “I’d like to see production and quality on the same platform where we have a single book of truth.”

That single book also is known as the system of record, which is another name for ERP. What it most definitely is not is Excel.