Q&A: Utilizing Information To Improve Product Quality

As the food industry continues to become more automated, manufacturers are faced with the challenge of closely monitoring their equipment, employees and processes to ensure that product quality remains high. Food Manufacturing spoke with Michael Gay of Rockwell Automation about how food companies can organize data to manage product quality and safety more effectively.

Q: How does information management impact the quality of food purchases?

A: The food manufacturing industry continues to experience highly publicized product recalls due to major lapses in food safety and quality management. Unfortunately, slow, disconnected information systems, coupled with a paper-based approach for tracking quality processes, are often to blame. Manufacturers will likely be able to prevent faulty products from hitting the shelves if access to real-time plant data is readily available. Real-time information enables plant managers to identify where, when and why mistakes are occurring — which not only in significantly improvements in first-pass quality, but also increases in output and yield as well.

Q: What challenges do food manufacturers face when it comes to managing information?

A: The food processing industry, like many manufacturers, faces data organization challenges. Most food and beverage manufacturers operate on paper-based reporting solutions. Relying solely on manual data collection and storage is a slow, error-prone process that makes detecting and correcting undesirable trends a cumbersome task. To achieve optimum performance, manufacturers need timely information about the production process in order to effectively analyze and detect undesirable trends and take immediate corrective action when needed. When a food manufacturer operates with fragmented processes and disconnected systems, meeting strict safety and quality standards can be difficult.

Q: What is an integrated quality-management solution and how does it work?

A: An integrated quality-management solution helps manufacturers automate and streamline their paper processes for increased efficiency and quality control. The system works by creating context in the manufacturing process for all quality tests to be executed against. This is typically done using a process order. Once quality tests are carried out, the results are stored along with other production records in context. With the combined data, operators can access this information in real-time through the use of performance management dashboards, and use it as a key driver of quality improvement initiatives. The derived data provides information that can be used to empower employees with improved vision, correlate and trend data and achieve marked improvements in quality through prediction and control — all of which help reduce risk and improve profitability. For example, a quick glance at a trend-oriented graphic can provide powerful insight into performance history and status (compared to raw numbers). It also can help users more effectively make comparisons of multiple data sources using the dimension of time or a production run.

Q: How can food manufacturers better connect their information sources to improve product quality and consistency?

A: The most efficient and cost-effective way for food manufacturers to connect their information sources and improve quality and consistency is with an integrated quality-management solution. At the core of a robust quality-management system are tools that allow users to aggregate information from multiple applications and transform this data into highly visible, actionable, performance-oriented intelligence. By putting data into context, dashboards allow operators to make immediate process corrections in real time, instead of after the fact. This can result in significant improvements in product quality and consistency.

Q: What should food manufacturers consider when looking for Manufacturing Operations Management technologies?

A: Because food and beverage manufacturers’ needs vary wildly, a manufacturer should look for Manufacturing Operations Management technologies that can be the basis of a continuous improvement platform. A complete system will provide essential components for success including:

  • Performance Management Capabilities — Providing a Key Performance Indication (KPI) dashboard that measures the performance of manufacturing is a good place to start. Having a “scorecard” to measure success of production will be the centerpiece in improving product quality.
  • Production Context — It’s important to collect data from the production process while it’s running. But even more so, the data needs to be collected in context so that it can be readily retrieved if it’s necessary to review production records to determine root cause of product issues. All manufacturing data including materials, manpower, methods and machinery details that should be collected and contextualized against a process order to bound the manufacturing process.
  • Integrated Quality Adding a plant floor quality solution to the framework of an overall information solution makes the final connection in the optimization platform, allowing the user to tie in final quality output with relevant production data.

By using the correlated information, manufacturers can make improvements in the overall production process and establish best practices to ensure the product is created in the same way every time. This enforcement can then be achieved with a procedural control application that helps ensure the use of best practices regarding the raw materials, processing equipment and operational procedures (manual and automatic) that are used to create the product.

Interview By Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor