Food manufacturers can face many challenges as processors and providers of safe, healthy food products. They must keep quality high, deviations low and prices competitive. Continuous improvement plays an important role in achieving these goals in a competitive environment such as the food industry.
Continuous improvement is a method employed to identify opportunities for streamlining work and reducing waste. It covers the ongoing development of products, optimization of processes, and streamlining of services in order to, as the name implies, be continuously improving your operations. Continuous improvement consists of techniques, disciplines and strategies used together to reach optimal levels of efficiency and effectiveness. Different methodologies work better for different cases, and so it is not rare to observe many of these being implemented within a single company.
Generally, all continuous improvement programs have these same characteristics:
- Employee teamwork and involvement
- Tracking and systematizing processes
- Reducing variation
- Reducing defects
- Reducing cycle times
What do food manufacturers aim to improve and how are they doing it?
Food manufacturers, like any other industry, must constantly work on improving their processes to reduce their operation overheads, improve the quality of their products and increase the approval from consumers. Continuous improvement is a practice that helps companies grow and reach optimal efficiency. Continuous improvement can be put into practice through different strategies and techniques, however, knowing what you should be aiming for as a food manufacturer is vital for the implementation of continuous improvement activities. An assessment of your plant and its potential areas for improvement should be executed before any actions are taken.
Unlike food manufacturers of the past, today’s professionals are better organized, more disciplined and better trained in applying analytical techniques that drive continuous improvement. Nowadays, food manufacturers are more aware of the impact they can have on their operations and are determined to make sure the performance at their plants grows each day. Formalized programs to re-examine existing practices have become mainstream in food and beverage organizations. In 2006’s State of Food Manufacturing study conducted by Food Engineering, 186 food professionals stated that they had a continuous improvement program in place, and this was over a decade ago! You can find Food Engineering's most recent survey here. In Food Processing’s 2014 Manufacturing Trends Survey, a slight majority of industry professionals indicated their companies had instituted formal improvement programs. These types of studies give us an insight into what top food manufacturers aim to work on and improve. Understanding your goals (and other food manufacturers) is crucial to know what types of methodologies should be implemented in a Continuous Improvement Program.
Following are some valuable insights on improvement points in food manufacturing derived from both studies:
- Automation: ranks at the top of the list of today’s food manufacturers’ concerns, whether it involves staffing cuts, data capture challenges or technical improvements. Industrial PCs are playing a larger role in today’s plants. Programmable logic controllers and product tracing and tracking systems are ranked as the top purchases in today’s food manufacturing facilities. Software for preventive and predictive maintenance are also emerging as an area of investment. 45% of food professionals said they were investing in automated maintenance technology while 40% stated they were integrating RFID systems for product tracking. Automation is now a necessity in the food industry to address the required levels of quality control, production speed, labor shortages and overall profitability.
- Outsourcing: has been an increasing interest in growing manufacturers as 57.5% say this type of activity has increased. The growth of technology and faster modes of transportation has made it easier to engage in international business. 28.9% claimed that they were engaging in more outsourcing activities than the previous year.
- Throughput and Equipment: most manufacturers have expected throughput to grow. Investment in production, packaging, process control equipment and professional services equipment is constantly increasing. Two out of five facilities spent $1 million or more on these types of equipment in the year of study. Automation has meant workforce reductions, but overall manpower increases in the food industry due to plant expansions, additional shifts, new lines, and new plants coming on line.
- Integration: 54.5% of participants identified integration of manufacturing systems as a major challenge, making it one of the top in the list. Integration of warehouse operations and distribution systems was also highlighted as a main issue.
- Human Error: in terms of falling short in fulfilling their manufacturing mission, food professionals pointed to human rather than technical issues. Training of maintenance personnel, operators and others remains a notable need. Communication represents another chronic problem in some manufacturers, whether it is between different groups in the plant, within the organization or with customers. Most believe a solution for this is continuous improvement programs and personnel training.
To improve on these areas, a structured and personalized solution plan must be implemented. These plans should include well-known methodologies, such as Six-Sigma, and production monitoring technology that informs of your plant’s operational status through graphics and metrics such as key KPIs. Visualizing your plant’s production and causes of errors will provide you with enough understanding of your root deficiencies, ways to overcome those as well as the best strategies to include in your continuous improvement program. In today’s increasingly competitive environment, Continuous Improvement can help ensure that companies stay profitable even with unforeseen circumstances.
Smart Operational Technology enables manufacturing businesses to understand where opportunities for maximum gain from Continuous Improvement initiatives lie and empower Continuous Improvement teams to independently make decisions that lead to the quickest ROI.
By combining different systems and techniques, a company can develop the plan and culture that best suits its needs. Teams can be dispatched in every department of a plant; general operations, quality assurance, engineering, packaging, production, and maintenance. Every aspect of operations in the food industry can apply Continuous Improvement principles to maximize profitability and boost efficiency. In fact, it is important that most if not all Continuous Improvement projects include multiple departments. Project success relies on the input and engagement of many members of staff.
Introducing a Continuous Improvement program to a whole company can be a challenge. Employees at a plant, and other company levels, are accustomed to carrying out their work in a certain way and changing their mindset is not an easy task. As with any change effort, there will be some resistance. The harder a program is pushed, the greater resistance it can get. Because of this, sustaining a continuous improvement program can be difficult, and it takes effort, patience and persistence to observe and feel the changes. Due to this challenge, some manufacturers prefer to hire Continuous Improvement consultants that conduct training for employees, but these efforts usually fade away as the consultants leave the company. The key for implementing a Continuous Improvement mindset in the company is making it a component of the culture rather than a temporary training program. Employees should be trained and mentored, but granted ownership of their process at the same time. A successful Continuous Improvement program is one that focuses on the people (the employees) instead of focusing merely on the actions they should take. This way, efficiency naturally becomes the outcome rather than the focus. Discover 6 HR tips for a successful transition to Industry 4.0.
Read how Mondoux increase its output by 25% by empowering its frontline workers with Worximity's real-time monitoring platform.