(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the October/November 2017 issue.)
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Almost every large food enterprise has already started its paperless journey, replacing paper-based processes in everything from order management to manufacturing to distribution and warehousing all the way to customer support. Going paperless offers huge competitive dividends as it helps manufacturers simplify operations and ensure product quality.
By replacing paper and clipboards with electronic tracking and real-time analysis, manufacturers can spot problems quicker—allowing them to zero in on the origin faster and accelerate their time to resolution to minimize overall impact. This can dramatically reduce the waste and cost associated with quality problems that go unchecked. Additionally, an automated process can identify information gaps at the detail level and increase productivity since keeping track of materials’ specific origin, processing, and distributions can be labor intensive and time consuming.
Eliminating paper processes enhances food manufacturers’ ability to maintain consistent quality with greater efficiency, safety, and consistency—ultimately protecting their brand reputation and helping them get the most return from thin margins. On a human level, the increased simplicity that comes with “going paperless” helps eliminate the drudgery of paperwork, increasing employee satisfaction and sharpening their focus on the core mission of producing great products.
However, despite the benefits mentioned above, many food enterprises are still using processes that rely on paper instructions and documentation. Why are some companies holding onto these paper processes? Because, given the required investment in new technology, they perceive the process of transitioning to paperless as too complex and not cost-effective when calculating the time to train employees to use and understand the new systems. Unfortunately, not transitioning to paperless processes creates serious risks for food manufacturers.
Hidden Liabilities of New Regulations
With food safety regulations tightening and competitors striving to grab market share, information gaps associated with holding onto paper processes create real vulnerabilities for manufacturers. Due to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), food manufacturers must now ensure they are producing according to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). This includes traceability of everything including all source materials, manufacturing, packaging, and labeling processes that align with master documentation.
Pressure for reliable track-and-trace capabilities is also coming from health-conscious consumers who are increasingly focused on food safety and accountability. They want to know what is in their food—including GMOs—where it comes from and how it was produced.
As an example, consider information tracking related to raw materials. Food manufacturers track their incoming and consumed materials at a gross level through their enterprise resource planning, or ERP, systems. But as mentioned earlier, there are often gaps at the detailed consumption and processing levels. Producers typically know what materials were used for a particular production run, but they may not have comprehensive information regarding which blended material lots were used in each and every packaged good or a full “genealogy” of the material at a granular level. If a quality issue arises in the finished product, this gap will make tracking down the source and the downstream impact both complex and time-consuming, significantly effecting the business and the brand.
Promise of the IIoT
To solve these vulnerabilities, manufacturers need to modernize their automation systems and IT infrastructures. Forward-looking enterprises are viewing this as an opportunity to create a “smarter” supply chain and automation environment and are embracing the idea of leveraging the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
The power of the IIoT comes from its combination of connectedness, intelligence, and speed. It is about connecting devices throughout the supply chain and production processes to collect and interconnect operational data, which can be organized and quickly analyzed to enable a multitude of powerful capabilities—including real-time process optimization, which was previously not possible. Collecting, analyzing, and displaying production data from across a plant, product line, or enterprise in real-time enables IIoT systems to identify and rectify instances of non-compliance with Standard Operating Procedures much faster than is possible with traditional paper-based processes.