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

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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 (www.ultraconsultants.com), 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 (www.ifsworld.com), 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 (www.wlfoods.com) 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.

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