Can Software Solve the Food Industry's Problems?

Jan. 12, 2011
If the new year brings surging demand or new government regulations…Software can solve it

Now that the nasty little recession is over, food & beverage manufacturers can go back to cranking out as many products as their plants can produce. The problem is, they now have fewer plants than they did a few years back. How to meet resurging demand with fewer physical resources?


That may be an oversimplification, but software and other forms of automation are the most apparent ways of doing more with less. Manufacturing software also appears destined to play key roles in food safety (including track and trace), new regulations and third-party quality certifications.

"Most of our clients are spending their efforts on SQF [Safe Quality Foods Institute] level II or level III certification and are not as concerned about the legislative actions," says Randy Smith, CEO and co-founder of Vicinity Manufacturing, Marietta, Ga., which integrates its solutions to the Microsoft Dynamics platform. Vicinity offers a suite of tools with the focus on formula-based manufacturing.

"We have taken much of what we learned from pharmaceutical manufacturing and are now applying it to food," he says. "Our app has been helping documentation of controls in place, as well as recording steps and processing that were performed for each batch."

Michael Gay, consumer packaged goods industry manager for Rockwell Automation, Milwaukee, lists five bullet points of interest he's seeing from software customers:

  • Food safety
  • Yield improvements
  • Waste reduction
  • First-pass quality
  • Sustainability

But they're not substantially different from interest in recent years, he adds. In a sign that the economy is improving, "I am seeing projects getting green lights that were stalled [because of the economy] the past two years," he says.

"Lean manufacturing, six sigma, TPM [total productive maintenance] all are growing as demands from our customers," he continues. Energy management? "Most never took their eyes off it, even when energy prices were low," he adds, but it may see a bit more interest now that prices are increasing. "If anything, they've redoubled their efforts because of its effect on sustainability and green initiatives."

And food & beverage processors still have a ways to go to computerize their track and trace systems. "Ninety percent of our customers still do track and trace primarily by paper," he says. "Even the largest ones, multinationals, still use a lot of paper, especially at the plant-floor level."

Plex Systems Inc., Auburn Hills, Mich., is a proponent of "cloud" computing, where the vendor maintains the servers, and software, data and other resources are supplied on demand over the Internet. Its Plex Online is an SaaS (software as a service) enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution for virtually every department within a company -- manufacturing execution systems and quality management systems for the shop floor, supply chain management for procurement, and ERP reaching up into finance and management.

A recent Plex convert is Jensen Meat Co. The Vista, Calif., meat processor began a search early last year for an ERP system as a replacement and improvement to three aging and obsolete production systems. "We wanted to have the company on one system," explains Sam Acuña, director of finance, who had previous experience with Plex Online. "I immediately thought of Plex Online because of its software as a service delivery model, user-friendly features, overall functionality and cost-effectiveness."

CDC Software, Atlanta, is itself a recent convert to SaaS and cloud computing. Its most recent acquisitions have been three SaaS companies, the last of which was TradeBeam, a provider of on-demand software for supply chain visibility and global trade management. However, its 2004 acquisition of Ross Systems brought CDC the more significant installed base in the food industry, thanks to Ross' comprehensive (but traditional computing-based) suite of modular enterprise resource planning solutions for manufacturing, financials, supply-chain management, performance management and regulatory compliance.

CDC Ross specializes in recipe-based production systems. It satisfies regulatory and customer-imposed food safety mandates through rapid, streamlined recalls; manages pricing and promotions; achieves actual lot costing for all finished products; and mitigates food contamination risk through complete supply-chain visibility.
While there are plenty of existing challenges to solve with software, new ones could come with the passage of a new federal food safety act. "The small food guy is being driven out by the requirements placed by the government as well as their larger customers," says Smith.

"If we are not careful [the government] may put higher requirements on local production than [on] imports. The result I am afraid is added justification to outsource food production. That would be a mistake." But most other issues can be solved with the right software, he says.