The right tools for the job

IT systems are now omnipresent at all levels of the meat industry, whether to improve traceability, yield or cost management. But to achieve optimum efficiency, it is important that processors input the correct information into the software. In order to ensure the success of their solutions, IT providers are making operator interfaces easy to use and flexible.

Peter Kettel, UK sales manager at Emydex Technology, says the success of an IT system requires commitment from both the provider and the customer. “An overwhelming proportion of [processors] indicate that they want to achieve accurate stocks, yields and dispatch reporting together with traceability. A similarly large proportion claim they are disappointed with their existing systems, which were sold to meet the stated requirements, but ended up just being used to label boxes and provide elementary production totals,” Kettel explains.

“In most cases the fault lays between both the processor and the IT suppliers. The IT suppliers were most likely more interested in selling the hardware (scales, terminals and printers), using the promised software implementation to justify their supply. The processors were expecting a solution that they could take out of the box, switch on, and miraculously provide all of the management information they wanted, without them needing to put in any additional effort than placing their order,” he adds.

However, Kettel has observed an improvement in recent years, as most processors who have used IT systems for some time now realised they needed to work on data input after neglecting it the first time. “The situation now can be very different. With most processors having at least one bad experience of a shop floor data capture system failing to deliver on its promises, they are now more selective in what they want, with a better appreciation of how much work will be required by both themselves and the chosen supplier in implementing the selected solution in a manner that delivers on the functionality required. The old adage ‘once bitten, twice shy’ is very relevant in this marketplace,” he adds.

Change in staff requirements

For AC Software Solutions managing director Richard Clarke, the arrival of IT in the meat industry has actually prompted a shift in the type of staff hired on plants. “Some of the things that would have been done in the back office in the past are now done in the factory, meaning workers need to have the skills necessary to operate the touchscreens and input the right data,” he says.

But Anglia Business Solutions development director Richard Jones disagrees, saying the only thing IT systems have changed is the operators’ ability to access information more quickly. “Companies have done well because they’ve got industry knowledge, not IT knowledge. I don’t think IT has changed the workforce, it’s just given it more ability to take a step back and look at what works and how to get operational efficiencies,” he says.

According to Jones, Anglia’s products are accessible to anyone who knows how to send a text message or withdraw money from a cash dispenser. The company makes screens as simple as possible, offers multilingual displays for workers who do not speak English, and even takes into account the fact that employees might be wearing gloves when inputting information. “It’s very easy, even when you haven’t got the luxury of sitting your employees down and talking them through the process. They can just pick it up and carry on with their work,” Jones adds.

In order to limit the margin of error, Emydex uses questions with a minimum selection of answers for the operator. “We try to limit operator responses to as small a selection as possible. Only valid selections for the particular circumstances are presented to the operators. [We] recommend presenting the operators’ selection choice as individual hot shot keys, when possible. Validation is carried out on all operator responses prior to saving to the database,” Kettel explains.

The same sort of procedure has been employed by IT provider Systems Integration, especially when it comes to traceability solutions. The company’s QA Control module consists of scanners carried by operators around the plant, which are linked to a central database in the back office. The scanners ask a series of questions with yes/no or multiple choice answers. 
The product also improves traceability by making all the information accessible in one click, instead of having to look through masses of paperwork.

“There’s nothing like being able to press a button and access the information. If there’s a problem, we’ll be able to send off emails automatically to the individuals and report. Processors identified that it used to take them hours a day to collect information for inspection purposes, and now they can do it in seconds,” says Paul Marston, sector specialist at Systems Integration.

Jones also believes paper-based solutions increase the chances of making mistakes, saying: “Taking paper out of the process leads to efficiency.” Anglia Business Solutions now manufactures portable devices to ensure the accuracy of the information entered in the system.

Jones adds: “You might have the best IT system in the whole world, but if you cannot keep it up to date with real-time information, it’s a waste of valuable time and effort. You have got more of a chance to do things right if you can capture the information at the point of first reception rather than down the track.

“A lot of people want to capture the information while they are out in the field or with the farmer, so we do a lot of mobile computer technology, handheld quality control devices or we can even put the work on operators’ iPads. You can start quality assurance (QA) by doing agronomy work out in the field, looking at farms and slaughterhouses and actually capturing your QA data on a mobile device, which guarantees traceability as well.”

Even in the back office, IT providers are simplifying traceability systems, so processors can access all the services offered by software, even with limited computer knowledge. It usually takes staff capable of writing Structured Query Language (SQL), a programming language used in input systems, to derive information from their database, but Emydex has recently started a joint project to make the interface more user-friendly. 

Kettel says: “Many processors do not have the necessary skills to query the database to provide the answers required. With this in mind, we have partnered with ‘TraceAssured’ to provide an interactive, graphical front end. This enables the processor, via a sequence of steps, to ask the question required of the database, without any knowledge of SQL, The system then creates the Query on the database and returns the required result in both graphical and report format.”
Another common problem that can cause IT systems to be less efficient is when operators use the wrong product for a specific job. Jones says: “It’s all about using the right device at the right time.” 

To avoid these issues, Emydex has set up a quality rules system to ensure that only the adequate product can be used for each job.

“This enables quality rules to be set for production departments, production batches and production jobs – and even individual production and sales orders — to ensure that only input products with the correct attributes can be used in a particular production run,” adds Kettel.

“There will always be times when a higher-quality product has to be used in a lower-quality job. But with the Emydex system, this has to be authorised by a supervisor, ensuring yields and cost models are not reduced just because the wrong product is used at input.”

Having the right IT system that limits the margin of error at input and is flexible is the way to bring meat businesses forward. It improves food safety and traceability, but can also increase business by showing a modern image to customers. Jones says: “An organisation that installs this kind of system is perceived as progressive, taking a leap into the future, so there’s a lot of softer benefits that companies can capitalise on.”


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