The Changing Face of Food to Go Technology – WMS impacts
This month, Indigo Software has written for Sandwich & Food to Go News magazine about the ways some of the UK's leading manufacturers are using Indigo WMS technology to improve profitability and quality.
Food to go is booming and perhaps the most intensely active of all the UK’s food manufacturing sectors, with ultra-low margins and fierce competition for our taste buds across all segments. Valued at just over £21 billion in 2019, it’s also one of the fastest growing, thanks to ever increasing working time pressures and fast-moving lifestyle choices. Kantar Research expects the sandwich industry alone to grow by a healthy £33m every year for the foreseeable future, not to mention the potential growth of other food to go options, with everything from sushi and wraps to protein snack pots on offer for people today.
Regardless of what’s on offer, common to all manufacturers is managing short product shelf life. Consumers have lost their appetites for processed foods with longer shelf lives. They want natural products. Foods containing as few added ingredients as possible and home-made quality on the move. These demand trends make the issue of perishability and the need for ultra-efficient stock rotation more relevant than ever. But it can be highly resource intensive to achieve the high inventory control standards needed for this without the right technology in place.
Just as everywhere else in industry today, automation is making inroads here, as companies try to achieve these freshness goals and ‘do more with less’. Already widespread on the shop floor, tech is increasingly moving into the warehouse, where some of the UK’s biggest sandwich producers are using warehouse management system (WMS) software to overhaul the way their logistics and distribution centres operate.
Thanks to WMS technology, these larger manufacturers can simultaneously (and instantaneously) reduce their production to dispatch times, control wastage at all levels, improve quality control and traceability, comply with new labelling legislation, reduce overheads and introduce efficient Brexit contingency planning for those longer shelf life ingredients. In addition, automating their Quality Assurance (QA) / Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) data capture processes reduces the time taken to perform accurate, food safety audits from days to minutes.
What lessons can other ‘food to go’ manufacturers – the sushi and snack producers, smoothie manufacturers, vegetable and fruit salad processors and smaller-scale sandwich producers for instance – learn from their best practice? How could implementing warehouse management software in particular, help to increase profit margins and improve all round product quality or compliance?
5 ways to benefit from a WMS
Here are 5 ways a WMS solution is already having a positive impact in sandwich manufacturer’s warehouses across the UK.
Fastest possible turnaround efficiency
Being such a fast-moving business, there’s no room for delays to a schedule when it comes to producing sandwiches. The ability to transact in real time, based on the knowledge that a manufacturer is touching 100% inventory accuracy, is absolutely essential. Any risks of inaccuracy, or delays as a result of not being able to locate stock, have an immediate impact on production and delivery schedules. Warehouse automation is central to achieving the tight turnarounds needed for fresh produce.
Using a WMS, raw material stocks are automatically rotated either according to first in first out principles or to maximise shelf life, so that when picking for a particular manufacturing cycle, the most suitable products are always used first. This may be for instance, because they are nearest their best before dates, or because they feature soon to be out of circulation packaging. In some circumstances, although their dates specify otherwise, other items might need to be used first instead, perhaps because their temperature upon arrival was higher than expected, but still within tolerance levels.
Being able to spot these opportunities and use these ingredients widely, without compromising manufacturing schedules or consumer safety are key to maximising margins. By controlling absolutely everything coming into or leaving the warehouse, a WMS will automatically prioritise the use of these ingredients, taking the potential for human error and stock mis-rotation out of the production process.
Get a handle on plastic waste
In the Budget 2018, the UK government announced its intention to introduce a new tax on plastic packaging. This tax will apply to businesses that produce or import plastic packaging which uses insufficient recycled content, taking effect from April 2022. Sandwich and ‘food to go’ manufacturers have long been heavy users of bonded materials, so this timeframe provides an opportunity to completely phase out less recyclable packaging over a long period. Indigo is currently actively working on projects like this with some of the UK’s largest sandwich producers, helping them to phase out the use of what will become non-compliant packaging well in advance of the deadline and avoid any material waste. For both ingredients and packaging items, avoiding mis-rotation of plastic packaging stock is a key objective for leading sandwich and food to go producers, both in terms of reducing costs and for environmental efficiency.
Faster labelling compliance
Connected to the issue of minimising packaging waste is the question of labelling and the increased responsibility to more clearly label products containing allergens. Existing EU legislation calls for all foods to clearly display the presence of 14 common allergens for customer safety. In May 2019, the Food Standards Agency started to urge for tougher legislation and much clearer labelling by all outlets selling food, following on from the Pret a Manger accident. Shelf labelling is of course important, but allergen safety really needs to begin in the warehouse, by firstly ensuring that all ingredients containing allergens are correctly stored and labelled. When present in finished products, all packaging needs to very clearly state the presence of any allergenic ingredients and a WMS can help to automate these processes too.
Greater inventory accuracy
Normally, production schedules are controlled using a Bill of Materials listing the precise quantities of each ingredient needed for a set batch size. The items are manufactured and then, based on a set volume, the required ingredients are estimated and ‘flushed’ out of the inventory – a process known as ‘backflushing’. When it comes to sandwiches, it’s much harder to automate because it’s very difficult to be that accurate. For instance, the weight of three tomato slices going into a BLT can vary a lot depending on the fruit sizes. To achieve the right levels of precision, a WMS assists this process. By integrating weigh scales, manufacturers can calculate exactly how much product was used during manufacture and then subtract these used quantities from the inventory levels. This avoids having to manually go through works orders or conducting frequent stock room audits. It also means traceability is more reliable, because the system records exactly which items were used in a particular batch.
Improved quality assurance
For sandwich manufacturers, the production process starts as soon as a sales order is received from a customer and the WMS system calculates exactly what resources and raw ingredients are needed to complete the order. Once the raw ingredients arrive at a facility, upon arrival, goods are receipted and quality checked, based on an agreed set of inspection conformance criteria – sell by date, country of origin, shipping temperature, authorised shipping documentation – and cannot be accepted as inventory without the relevant authorisations being completed. Any processes managed using paper have the potential for human error, but once automated, the compliance risks are eliminated. It’s a big step towards watertight traceability and customer safety.
Importantly new conformance tests can also be added almost immediately. Supermarkets routinely request audit reports of shipments and by automating quality assurance and HACCP data capture, the large sandwich manufacturers have reduced the time they need to perform food safety audits for their customers from days to minutes.
What’s the future?
The way forward for all manufacturers in the sandwich and ‘food to go’ sector is automation, but it comes in many shapes and sizes. A first step is to understand what best practice looks like and then to explore the answers to the following questions for your organisation. What level of efficiency, accuracy and traceability do you need to achieve? What’s the desired return on investment? Wherever there is a manual process in the warehouse there is a risk and by mobilising simple transactions like goods receipting and issuance of production notes, automation with a WMS takes this away