The one thing that all processors have in common is data.

Lots and lots of data.

Data is good, but it’s only as good as what you can do with it. For years, processors have compiled and maintained vast stores of data—you’re probably picturing a room full of filing cabinets right now—but in many cases, it’s been a time-consuming, monotonous process to find information needed for compliance checks, safety audits and mock or real recalls. That doesn’t even begin to account for the time and manpower involved in trying to use data to improve operating efficiency.

As more software options and mobile devices become available, processors now have a myriad of options to automate and/or streamline data collection and retrieval. By carefully identifying specific needs and working with vendors to customize a solution, processors can unleash the power of data to improve operations and still meet safety and compliance goals. But to do so, it’s important to clearly define what you need to do, how you need to do it and how to best get on board the people who will have to use the new tools from the beginning.

HB Specialty Foods, an Idaho-based producer of specialty bakery mixes and other specialized products, has taken steps to streamline its data management and retrieval by installing a document management system to offer better control over not only data, but projects and materials as well.

Like most companies, HB had tried-and-true methods of collecting and storing data through forms. But the company was having trouble being able to closely track and manage projects, especially when it came to R&D requests. Its initial solution was to modify a customer relationship management (CRM) program, but found it wasn’t flexible enough to meet the company’s needs. A document management system from Laserfiche, though, has quickly become the backbone of the company’s data management.

“People have discovered how much easier it is to find things, and not have to filter through all the filing cabinets,” says Pam VanTine, operations and business analyst. “Now, they’re wanting to put their documents in, so they can search by the metadata and find them more easily.”

HB’s experience with moving to a software solution is a common one. There will always be people who are reluctant to change how they do things as long as the old way is working. But if you can offer them something that is new and better as opposed to just new, they will quickly come around as they see the benefits.

HB already had a pretty good process in place by using forms—17 of them, to be exact—which were customized for production facilities in Idaho, Wisconsin and Tennessee. Now, employees in each location have mobile devices that allow them to simply enter the information there as opposed to writing it down on paper.

“We took all 17 of those forms and combined them into one electronic form,” says VanTine. “It is dynamic, based off of the facility location and the actual inspection site, and then specific collection forms pop up based on that. Each one of those sites writes to an SQL database, so we can track and see nonconformance.”

If somebody needs to pull information about a particular production run, they can simply query the database and receive the information almost instantaneously.

Knowing what you need to know

To achieve a similar efficiency in your operations, the first step is putting together a thorough list of what you want the software to do. Part of this will be easy, as being able to search through production records and such are obvious benefits. But dig deeper than that to make sure you’re getting what you need. Simply saying that you want to move over to a software system doesn’t help much if you aren’t clear about what you need it to do.

Failure to properly define your goals can end up just leading to frustration, says Bill Benson, director of strategic accounts for SafetyChain.

“Processors really do want to make their lives easier; they just don’t know how to,” he says. “The majority of times, the first place I see people starting is they’ll go out and buy a tablet or a Toughbook, and they’ll use an Excel spreadsheet or some type of Google form to collect data.”

According to Benson, this leads to data that you can’t really use.

“They’re spending more time managing their data than they are managing their programs,” he says.

After defining what you need from the new system, also consider what you have. You probably already have at least some kind of database, even if information is typed in after it’s recorded on forms. There also may be legacy systems that manage one part of the operation or multiple systems for different departments. All of these can be brought together under one umbrella.

“The big thing that we see is a lot of companies have disparate systems that run different parts of their business,” says Scott Deakins, COO of Deacom. “You have your accounting system, your sales system, your production system, then you have a shipping system. What ends up happening is that the production team writes down all the data in one place, and then you hand it off to a data processor. And now, that data processor is responsible for putting it into all the different systems, which means [an] opportunity for errors and is also extremely inefficient.”

If you currently have people walking the plant floor with paper forms, they could probably use a mobile phone or tablet instead; at HB, all members of the receiving crew have iPhones which allow them to pull up and verify specs on the spot instead of having to dig through forms. HB employees also use iPads for quality control testing instead of writing down information and later entering it on a computer.

Once you’ve identified what you want the system to do, then you can start looking for ways to bring together departments that may have previously been in silos, says Rockwell Automation’s Dave Sharpe, global industry director of consumer packaged goods. As he says, viewing safety and production as complementary operations can be beneficial.

“Don’t look at safety as a cost to the business,” Sharpe says. “It’s important that companies start looking at safety as an opportunity in the business, not delineating between productivity and safety. They should come hand in hand.”

The human element

After defining what you want the software to do, the next step is to get out in front of the changes to make sure employees understand what the software is for, how it will be used and how their roles will change. “Automation” can be a four-letter word to employees if they think the robots are coming for their jobs, so be sure to be clear about how their roles will change and what benefits they will see from the changeover.

For example, Deakins says a Deacom client saved time by switching over to a software system, and that allowed its staff to pursue certifications to not only help their careers, but also gave the processor another selling point for the quality of its operations.

Much like the actual changeover, you should avoid simply talking to one department at a time about how a new system can and will affect them. Bringing people together allows for those spearheading the switch to answer questions that span departments and demonstrate how improvements in one department can benefit another.

Production may not always be thinking that more efficient quality control can help make production easier, but being able to address points such as that up front can not only help get employees thinking about how the new system will make everyone’s lives easier, but also get them to understand that their department will not be the only one asked to make changes in how they do things, and that there will be tangible benefits.

“Automation just to replace paper isn’t going to cut it,” says Jill Bender, VP of marketing for SafetyChain.

She points out that if you’re automating, yet not really doing anything with the data, then you aren’t really gaining anything.

This process plays out differently when evaluating software solutions and explaining what a new system will mean for production departments and quality/safety departments. If you can offer production a tangible increase in efficiency, they’ll most likely be on board right away. But it’s harder to quantify safety benefits up front.

“It’s always an easy sell for us with production higher-ups from the point of view of ‘we’re going to increase your yield by 4 percent,’ or ‘we’re going to increase your B grade to A grade by 2 percent,’” says Brandon Murphy, professional services manager for CAT Squared software. “As soon as we say that and as soon as we can show proof of that, done. With quality, it’s different.”

For production, as Murphy says, the best selling point is numbers. You can offer production a potential improvement in efficiency by switching over to a software-driven system; as an added bonus, you can easily show over time that the promised improvement is being delivered. If it’s two clicks of a mouse to show how much more efficient you are compared to this time last week, last month or last year, that’s a pretty good way to get people who are naturally concerned about efficiency to come on board.

Beyond that, you can even show in real time how the plant is performing. Scoreboards in different departments can offer real-time information on how a line is performing and can be customized to show information specific to the department in which the scoreboard is placed. Want the scoreboard near the freezers to show a rolling record of the temperature of chicken pieces as they come out and how many have been put through the freezer that day? Done. Want the shipping department to be able to tell at a glance how many packages they’ve shipped out? No problem. Want the front-office people to be able to keep an eye on overall operations? Just choose which metrics you want on their scoreboard.

Murphy’s coworker, Implementations and Project Manager Lyle Helton, spent almost 26 years in a plant before joining CAT Squared. He says that in his experiences with changeovers to software-driven systems, the speed at which information can be available is information that helps bring even those who were skeptical on board.

“It got to be more and more comfortable as people would see how quick and easy it was to see how their processes were functioning throughout the day, instead of having to wait until the end of the day,” Helton says.

He also adds that the scoreboards do more than just offer information.

“Natural competition takes place as people on the line see scoreboards and other ways of tracking performance,” he says.

For the good of the whole

As you move into bringing quality and safety departments on board with the changeover, keep in mind that there are crossover areas where improved data collection and the efficiency of operations can affect both departments. Rockwell Automation’s Sharpe uses the example of cleaning in place and how being able to track and manage the effectiveness of that program can offer benefits for both production and safety.

“If you need to prove to the government, or a governing body, that you ran the CIP efficiently between the processes, that data’s automatically collected as opposed to being collected manually,” says Sharpe. “So, looking at the processes from that standpoint, as an integrated part of the production process, is a way that manufacturers need to start looking at safety.”

When you move into safety entirely, the arguments in favor of automation can become a little more theoretical. As CAT Squared’s Murphy points out, any quality or safety department worth its salt already has a good, efficient process in place, even if it’s literally No. 2 pencils and clipboards. They are often justifiably leery of the idea of automating that process because the ramifications of something going wrong are huge.

“Telling a production person that there is a way they can improve their process to get better efficiency, they’re open to,” Murphy says. “I have rarely found a quality person or a food safety person who is willing to say, ‘we should change our policies because it can make it better.’”

So, Murphy says, the first question that you will have to answer from your safety department will likely be, “We’ve realized how to meet our regulatory needs on paper. Can we do the same thing using a system?”

Working in a plant, Helton has seen these kinds of changeovers in action, and he seconds the idea that making changes can be a hard sell. He points out that, in many cases, external factors can help bring safety on board, as regulatory agencies or customers are beginning to require some sort of system in place to prevent products that may not be in compliance from getting out into the wild.

“On a piece of paper, you have somebody that’s on the floor and could write it down incorrectly. Unless somebody reviews that later, probably no one will see that,” Helton says. But with a software system that has controls in place, “it will not allow them to continue on. They have to stop and take corrective action at that time.”

VanTine says that HB’s experience has been similar, as the new system is offering ways to ensure that if there’s an ongoing issue, it can be addressed with detailed information about where in the process it is occurring.

“Before, we would just fill out a document—‘we did the inspection’—it would get filed, and nobody would ever look at it again,” she says. “Now, we’re actually able to trend where we’re seeing problems and get those problems addressed.”

These examples help show what usually gets safety on board: When something goes wrong, a software-based system makes it much, much easier to identify the problem and correct it.

“There’s no doubt that there is a move afoot that way, to really move to flawless execution, remove the risk of operator or errors in reporting,” says Rockwell Automation’s Sharpe.

To put this into practical terms, think about how long it takes to compile all the information needed for a recall if all of your documentation is on paper and stored in a filing cabinet. Now, consider HB’s experience with a recall last year due to an ingredient it had been supplied.

“Having all those production documents right at the tip of our fingers and being able to search for them, we actually finished our recall within hours,” VanTine says. “We had a notification out to our customers in two hours.

“We had no idea how much easier it was going to be until it happened.”

For more information:

Lyle Helton, CAT Squared, 501-328-9178,,

Brandon Murphy, CAT Squared, 501-328-9178,,

Dave Sharpe, Rockwell Automation, 440-646-3434,,

Scott Deakins, Deacom, 610-971-2278,,

Jill Bender, Safety Chain, 888-235-7540,,

Bill Benson, Safety Chain, 888-235-7540,,