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How food manufacturers can adapt and overcome with IT

Over the last several weeks, food and drink manufacturing’s response to uncharted crisis conditions has garnered admiration and respect from industry and consumers alike. As the powerhouse feeding the nation and providing the most fundamental of services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry has put in remarkable effort to ensure shelves are stocked and basic needs are met.

From dealing with panic buying to adapting to a rapidly changing supply landscape and all while being subject to operational restrictions and new safety measures, it is no understatement to say it’s never been harder for food and drink manufacturers. Stockpiling ahead of lockdown saw food retail sales increase 10.4% in March. Although the market has somewhat calmed, supermarkets will increase delivery slots from 2.1 to 2.9 million in the coming weeks, indicative that changes at the end of the supply chain are expected to remain.

The importance of flexible, efficient and reliable food and drink manufacturing – and the stark pressures the industry is bearing – are unquestionable. But we are seeing businesses overcome adversity to aid short-term survival and gain longer-term edge. What is common amongst success stories is the presence of strong technology roots and a real utilisation of IT. In an increasingly data-driven, fast-moving and technological industry, adapting and overcoming is synonymous with IT mastery, from automation to ERP and integration.

Several food and drink manufacturers have revealed that in the face of the crisis, they’ve fallen back onto the IT systems and processes implemented in preparation for Brexit – particularly a no-deal scenario. Evidently, being proactive with technology investments and embracing IT has undoubtedly saved many companies from buckling under the strain and may mean they emerge as stronger and more sustainable operations.

In fact, experts including the head of international trade at the Food and Drink Federation have warned that coronavirus panic buying is a sign of what could happen in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and that those in the food supply chain should treat current conditions as a dry run and test of their resilience.

It may seem counter-intuitive when basic business survival instincts are kicking in, but now could be the time to shake up IT. Don’t hesitate just yet – this does not necessarily mean spending vast amounts of money. But it does mean finding a way to work smarter and more efficiently; to create an operation that does more with less, and quicker too by maximising IT investments and being intelligent about where money is spent.

 

Issues that would be eased with stronger IT

As IT experts to the industry, Sentis has been paying close attention to the state of play down on the ground. Regardless of what is being sold and who to, we are hearing food and drink manufacturers report the following challenges during the pandemic – almost all of which are set to continue for some months, if not into 2021.

1. Increased demand

Although restaurants, pubs, hotels and bars are physically closed to the public (with many adapting to online ordering and home delivery), demand for food does appear to be increasing as Brits continue to stockpile, albeit less dramatically.

Demand for ambient and store cupboard goods – including alcohol – has increased exponentially, and retailers are also seeking British grown or produced goods that get from factory to table via a highly-regulated supply chain. On another note, artisan and provincial goods are also proving popular as consumers put their hand to recreating restaurant favourites or wish to make mealtimes special.

This increased demand has come quickly, and industry must deliver to customers – from supermarkets to wholesalers or even directly to small businesses – and while adapting to a whole new way of socially distanced or remote working. Supermarkets, wholesalers and other businesses also want to ensure packed warehouses and storerooms, so may be placing extra orders which could disrupt your just-in-time (JIT) production response times.

With the dire consequences empty shelves have on the general public let alone children, the elderly and vulnerable, immediately ramping up production is a critical challenge to get right.

2. Quicker production

Customers (and their customers’ customers!) are desperately asking for more stock. But they also want it quicker as a result of hugely changed buying habits at all stages of the supply chain.

Although the British public are venturing out less, when they do shop or place an online order, their trolley is often larger, and they may be purchasing more of one item in a single shop. The same principle applies to those restaurants and takeaways catering for home deliveries who are typically offering reduced menus of customer favourites or only open on certain days.

This all means that when a customer needs a food order fulfilling, they need it almost immediately both to feed the nation and keep small businesses viable. This new challenge will push JIT to its limits and depend on excellent integration, automation and ERP functionality. 

3. Changing supply chains

The fulfilment routes food and drink manufacturers had forecasted – and the systems staff are used to managing – have potentially become unrecognisable. Direct supermarket orders may dominate, whereas wholesale could reduce due to temporary restaurant closures.

To cut out the middleman and avoid fighting against larger companies at wholesale level, small food outlets servicing local communities may come direct to manufacturers. Setting up a new customer and devising a production plan and fulfilment route all while juggling increased quantity and speed demand is no easy feat.

As the world makes inventive steps to adapt and overcome, food manufacturing too must become flexible and agile if it is to prosper and keep Britain’s fridges full.

4. Critical staff safety

Food and drink manufacturing staff are key workers in every sense of the word. But if feeding the nation during a pandemic wasn’t overwhelming enough, businesses also have to take all measures possible to protect the health of their employees.

To safeguard staff, a greater dependency is placed on technology and IT. This could be to help enable productivity while social distancing on the factory floor, provide reliable remote working or monitor the effectiveness of distancing measures and where more needs to be done.

Food and drink manufacturers are well-versed in health and safety, (especially anticontamination and hygiene), more so than most other industries. Amplifying this expertise when challenged with incidents beyond their control will be fundamental in achieving effective operations that see businesses through the COVID-19 storm.

5. Exceptional customer care

Customers large and small, new and old, will remember who was there for them and who could be trusted in times of trouble. Customer care and retention can be tough at the best of times, but no more so when navigating serious operational challenges and a mountain of unparalleled concerns.

Exceptional customer service that is connected, proactive and perfectly aligned with production is every successful company’s best-kept secret. And although the big issues are so very big for food and drink manufacturing at present, it’s important to put just as much focus on customer care now as during more normal times.

 

Manufacturing IT Guide

 

Key IT steps to help adapt and overcome

We need food and drink manufacturing to keep doing what it’s doing. From our years of experience and analysis of the moment’s recurring challenges, Sentis recommends addressing the following 6 aspects of IT infrastructure to ensure adaptability, flexibility and reliability, to mitigate the effects of any slowdown and be in a position to grasp opportunities when the market turns.

1. Reconfiguration

The ERPs that power food and drink manufacturing may not be configured to effectively manage new ways or working or servicing customers. This doesn’t mean ripping things out and starting again, nor does it mean configuring for specific COVID-19 challenges; but reconfiguring for speed, accuracy and efficiency will help manage most future obstacles with ease.

An ERP that is not fit for purpose could end up costing unnecessary time and resource. Sentis can survey ERPs and implement a solution that helps businesses run more efficiently and satisfy the operational and technical requirements of customers and suppliers too.

2. Integration

Flexibility, agility and adaptability are the key principles that will see the industry overcome these unprecedented times. So, it’s essential that any gaps that could impact productivity and efficiency or contribute to any blind spots (and right now, real-time data is everything) are bridged accordingly.

Integrating systems – including bridging gaps between factory floor hardware and software such as ERPs and CRMs – so that they talk to one another seamlessly will ensure food and drink manufacturers work at full capacity, maximise budget and are armed with data insights that inform critical strategic and purchase decisions.

Integration can also aid fantastic customer and supplier care by delivering an experience that’s smooth and seamless, complete with accurate and timely communications.

3. Remote working technologies

Being able to work flexibly – and at a moment’s notice – has never been more important. As such, the remote working and communication technologies that allow staff to work from anywhere must become an integral part of IT infrastructure going forward. Flexibility is a key factor in business continuity, but remote communication and collaboration tools can have a transformative effect on efficiency, teamwork and client relationships. They’re a valuable long-term investment.

Sentis recommends building remote working infrastructure which includes: business grade internet and the best security to protect it from web-based threats, hosted telephony, cloud storage, virtual desktops or remote desktops, authentication processes, video calling capability and other key applications that enable collaboration and communications from home (such as Microsoft 365 and Teams).

4. Cloud solutions

It is important that any employee whose safety is compromised by being onsite works from home. Many food and drink manufacturers will be used to on-premise storage and infrastructure, but for effective remote working and to resolve communication, collaboration and productivity gaps between physically fragmented teams, virtualisation or an augmented version of what exists will be required.

Virtualised solutions – such as virtual desktops or remote desktops – or a hybrid cloud solution will continue to be essential. As well as enabling home working, virtualisation or hybrid cloud can improve functionality and resilience, and significantly reduce costs if correctly specified and utilised in full. For one Sentis client, improving existing infrastructure in this way resulted in 5-figure annual savings.

5. Automation

Automation has been a considerable industry talking point in recent years and is touted as the future of manufacturing. Rapid reactions and adaption are key to success in a landscape that today, is changing more quickly, frequently and radically than ever in its history.

To manage the crisis short term, food and drink manufacturers may wish to investigate where lower-level automation could streamline their processes. This could lead to improved accuracy, efficiency and capacity to grow, helping to boost profitability and gain an edge over competitors that could be crucial to longer term survival.

6. Cybersecurity

The last thing any food and drink manufacturer needs right now is a costly and disruptive data breach. Companies cannot afford any downtime whatsoever but recovering from a data breach or ransomware attack is rarely as straightforward as calling an engineer to replace a part.

Reviewing cybersecurity – including managing security updates and patching schedules, ensuring that software is installed on all remote devices and refreshing training for scam emails and good data protection hygiene – may be the small steps that mitigate an enormous problem.

 

Are you a food and drink manufacturer? Do you need short-term IT support to see you through the COVID-19 crisis, or are you ready to make a technology investment that will ensure your business’ ongoing competitiveness and adaptability? Speak to Sentis Managed Solutions on 0345 862 2930 or click here.

 

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Manufacturing IT Guide