Improving product consistency

Combining ingredient quality and inventory data can help increase plant efficiency.

Olin Thompson
Quality and quantity too often sit like strangers on opposing ends of a seesaw. Without any interaction, you may end up heavy on the quantity side and light on the quality side or vice versa. The key is balancing both quality and quantity to produce the most efficient product possible. To do so requires connecting quality and quantity data. For those ingredients with a great variety in specifications, the quality of the product can define the inventory. For example, a plant may have 100,000 lbs. of an ingredient but still be out of stock. How? When the recipe calls for grade A ingredient and the 100,000 lbs. is all grade B or C. By linking quantity and quality, you'll further promote efficiency.

At times, quality can be nebulous, varying greatly from lot to lot. Fresh ingredients can vary based upon season, weather, handling and other factors. Processed ingredients can vary based on the abilities of the processor and the price paid-generally, the higher the price, the tighter the quality. Tracking this data and combining it with inventory information can improve operations. If product is to be standardized before further processing, selecting lots with off-setting quality variation will expedite the process. If an ingredient is added for batch correction, selecting the best lot means selecting the right quality with adequate quantity.

Some plant-level enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems consider quality as part of the inventory record. These systems typically refer to the specifications as "attributes" or "characteristics" of the lot. The quality data is either collected by quality management modules or imported from a separate quality system. The integrated quality and inventory information is used as either a single source of information to guide decisions or, in some systems, as a source to make automatic decisions.

If the information is available as a guide, the quality data is displayed along with the inventory data. A person can then make decisions on questions like which lots to blend to arrive at an acceptable starting point for a batch. For example, an available-to-promise (ATP) inquiry may allow users to limit the information to only those lots with a specific range of water content or solids. A foreman could then use this information to select the lots to blend for a particular batch.

Some systems also provide intelligence, following various rules that enable them to make automatic decisions. For example, a blended juice product recipe could require grape juice from 22 to 24 brix. The system can decide which lot or lots to use based upon the recipe, expiration dates and lot specifications. Further, some systems can work with multiple parameters and compensating ingredients. If, for instance, the percentage of solids is higher than the recipe dictates, the system can decrease the ingredient quantity and increase the amount of water.

Should your inventory information include quality specifications? Only if your ingredients' specifications vary within an acceptable range and you are frequently changing recipes to compensate for quality differences. If this is your situation, combining quality and quantity information into a single system can provide a positive impact.

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