The food industry has a growing number of challenges to overcome in order to achieve efficient operation and profitable production. Weighing company Marco advises processors on the five important questions they must address and shows how ERP and MES can offer practical solutions

All companies need to make a profit, but maintaining profitable momentum in today’s roller coaster economic environment can be a challenging task. Making money in the fresh food industry is particularly difficult and the challenges of managing large volumes of low cost items, with limited shelf life, moving at high speed through the supply chain can be daunting. Whilst management recognise that focussing on short term financial stability can be counter-productive in the long run, sanctioning capital investment to improve productivity when resources are stretched can be a difficult call. For food companies, this dilemma places demands on their resources. Key challenges include:

• Rising global raw material costs

• Pressures from the large supermarkets and retailers to reduce prices

• Increased legislation and red tape

• Increasing staff costs

• Potential fines and brand damage resulting from EPWs and RTMs

Historically, the IT industry has failed to help the food industry find effective solutions to the issues above. However, developments within factory floor solutions demonstrate that, despite these restrictions, companies  can start to deliver improved profits by understanding more about the dynamics of their processes and implementing solutions to five key questions outlined in this article.

1) How can I reduce the waste my plant generates?

Effort is often focused on finding alternative ways of disposing of food waste, rather than looking at the root cause of waste generation.

Waste management systems must enable management to be proactive rather than reactive to waste. They should be easy to implement, simple to use, allowing personnel to record waste simply and effectively from specific factory locations. In such systems, simple touch screen terminals are ideal with intuitive prompts to help the user work through key waste related criteria. From such data, electronic reports can be generated over a user-defined date and time period to show trends. Active email alerts can then advise management of any pre-set threshold violations, allowing them to act immediately.

2) How can I ensure that I manufacture my products consistently – right first time?

Imagine how easy it would be if the overall assembly process were controlled by a central system that managed the whole process from start to finish, ensuring optimum product consistency. Such systems generate a BOM (Bill of Materials) for a particular finished product and then distribute it to the relevant workstations. Before this, it checks the stock levels for all available ingredients and optimises date coding selection to minimise waste.

At each workstation, prompts guide operators through the formulation process; ensuring each and every ingredient and each and every sub batch is correctly mixed and collated. Data would be continually updating any ERP system with real time factory floor data and full electronic traceability would be an integral part.

3) How can I accurately measure my over-fill/over-pack at any given time?

Yield Control management is an essential part of the overall ready meal assembly process, and it can reduce giveaway and waste, improve quality and productivity and increase profits. The key to successful Yield Control is to implement a system that is easy to use by operatives, yet provides management with comprehensive real time data from the factory floor. On site trials have highlighted that if real time automatic target weight compensation can be introduced that continually monitors and adjusts individual operator’s target weight patterns, giveaway can be reduced to fractions of a gram, whilst still ensuring pack weight compliance.

4) How can I be sure that my finished goods are correctly labelled?

The key to success requires a combination of centralised control of all the key elements of the packing line together with the latest label reading and optical recognition technologies. 

This approach ensures the safe and secure setup for all elements of the packing line. This enables the rapid automated setup of Date Coders, Inline Barcode Scanners (1D and 2D), OCV equipment, printers, checkweighers and metal detectors from one selection at a central PC screen.

In parallel, printed labels are checked and collated before going onto the line. Use of the latest Optical Character Verification (OCV) technologies can detect a much broader range of labelling issues, including misplaced/misaligned or partially missing labels. This not only detects faulty labels but also optimizes pack presentation and consistency.

5) How can I get visibility and control of my unaccountable losses?

The solution is to implement a system that brings real time control to manufacturing processes, unlocking the potential of ERP and allowing systems to react to actual information rather than historic or calculated data. Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) can bring this level of control by coordinating dynamic processes across the plant floor, improving productivity and profitability.

There is a common thread running through the solutions to these questions:  the requirement for coherent real time data from the factory floor.  It is possible to address these challenges, either through individual modular solutions at critical stages of the process or as part of a plant wide MES.


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