Means to an end

Developments in IT offering greater functionality and tailoring present an opportunity for businesses of all sizes across the meat trade to improve profit margins via enhanced efficiency and traceability, finds Alyson Magee.

IT systems are a mainstream element of the meat chain, from the logging of electronically tagged cattle on farms through to bar-coded retail packs of meat running through supermarket scanners. However, for many businesses — particularly in the processing and further processing sectors — outdated, rigid IT systems may well be hampering efficient operation and distribution.   

“There are very few processors that do not have some form of existing shop-floor IT system,” says Peter Kettell, UK sales manager at Dublin-based Emydex Technology. “We are finding that the greatest demand at the moment is from processors looking to move on from existing obsolete or unsupportable legacy products to open systems that they can control and further develop themselves.

“Many processors have purchased systems in the past that are now being used just as labelling systems. As many such systems are using proprietary hardware and software, it is increasingly difficult to get new staff interested in learning to support or administer them. This results in an unhealthy reliance on the system supplier and a very small number of key staff members.”

Squeezed margins

As economic uncertainty shows no sign of abating in the UK and globally, the foremost concern for businesses in the meat trade is seeking solutions to help alleviate the squeeze on profit margins.

For Lichfield-based Systems Integration (Trading), the current economic climate is boosting demand from the meat processing sector for its Cost Modelling and Margin Manager tools. “In combination, these modules enable management to easily view a breakdown of production costs, as well as sales and profit margins,” says Jodie Service, marketing executive at Systems Integration. “Management are able to view this data for each of their products, brands and customers. They are able to identify where they are making profit or loss and understand the reasons why.

“This is important for businesses operating in an industry renowned for price-based fluctuations and notoriously tight profit margins. Results can be surprising, with many processors realising they are actually making a loss on some of their accounts.”

AC Software Solutions has also found customers in the processing sector can be unaware of the impact of inefficient IT systems on their bottom line. “Times are tight, and nowhere is this felt more keenly than in the meat industry, where small margins make the difference between profit and loss,” says Richard Clarke, who handles services and support for the Somerset-based provider of tailored traceability solutions to the food processing industry.

“Efficiency, profitability and value for money are more important than ever, which is why shrewd business owners are looking for solutions to help them cut time, paperwork and wastage. Many firms are focused entirely on manufacture and don’t realise the money that is so easily wasted through the lack of professional systems.

“The industries we deal with regularly need systems in place to help them with everything from recipe formulation to product labelling. Small and medium-sized businesses are fast realising the importance of tailored software and understand how it can help their businesses develop, showing that they take food traceability and legislation seriously.”

Working with clients

Emydex has installed IT solutions across over 30 processing sites in the UK, Ireland and France, including multi-sites for The Kepak Group, Dunbia and Dawn Meats. “What’s different about Emydex is you’re working with people who understand the demands of the food industry very well,” says Jim O’Neill, IT manager for The Kepak Group. “Our previous production management system was developed in-house. For Emydex to deliver a system to Kepak that offers the same level of flexibility, while at the same time being a totally reliable and robust solution, is testimony to how well Emydex software has been developed and deployed.”

Having enhanced its kill line system capabilities, three new fully operational lamb kill lines are in operation at Kepak in Athleague and Hacketstown, and Dunbia in Elgin, incorporating electronic identification (EID) technology for reading ear tags, in addition to existing kill line systems for cattle and pigs.

“One recent installation that we are very pleased with is a system sold to Interfrigo in Antrim, Northern Ireland,” says Kettell. “Interfrigo is a third-party cold store, servicing a number of the major meat companies in Northern Ireland, and their existing warehouse management solution was only capable of operating at pallet level, while many of their customers wanted traceability at box level.

“Emydex first installed our standard warehouse management module and then enhanced it with our new eTransfers functionality. The business benefits of eTransfers include near real-time communications, guaranteed delivery, and box level traceability of stocks once put-away in third-party locations — a feature most legacy WMS systems are incapable of delivering.”

Emydex’s  eTransfers system proved particularly useful for Interfrigo in the run-up to Christmas in partnership with O’Kane Poultry in Ballymena — both Emydex customers, says Kettell.

“In the few weeks before Christmas, an enormous volume of turkeys were shipped out by O’Kane, many of which were bound for Interfrigo. Using the eTransfers feature, O’Kane was able to dispatch and trace shipments into and out of Interfrigo seamlessly.

“On the Interfrigo side, once received, goods were verified, put-away, picked and dispatched all via Emydex, with the ability to break down and rebuild pallets to fulfil sales orders as required. “The Interfrigo Emydex system also includes a web portal to allow customers real-time access to their stocks within Interfrigo.”

Emydex claims to go beyond the “front door to back door requirements of meat and poultry processing operations”, monitoring business transactions prior to delivery and stock located in external cold stores, says Kettell. “The strength of our system is that it is not one-size-fits-all. The system comprises a central core and a number of add-on modules, which are application-specific.

The system is extremely configurable and we deliver each implementation to suit the way our customers operate; we do not try to force our customers to change their operation to fit our system.”
Emydex also claims a competitive advantage in not forcing specific hardware on to its customers, with its systems able to operate via industrial touchscreen PC terminals running Windows XP or Windows 7, and hand-held scanning terminals running Windows Mobile. Most scales and thermal label printers can be used with the right software driver.

Software and hardware

Systems Integration, meanwhile, supplies Integreater, an enterprise manufacturing execution system (e-MES) operating as a complete software and hardware system suitable for abattoirs, boning halls, retail packers and value-added processors.

“The unique technology works by ensuring management have the visibility to achieve greater accuracy, efficiency and traceability,” says Service. “It effectively holds a magnifying glass up to your business, so that you can see exactly what’s going on and identify where you need to make improvements.

“Integreater is easy for everyone to use, from staff on the factory floor right up to the boardroom. Management tell us what data they want to measure and we configure the e-MES to do all of the hard work. It will then provide operators with the information they need, when they need it, in a way they’ll understand.

“Integreater is developed, installed and supported by a team of meat industry professionals, software developers and IT maintenance staff. We don’t work with businesses outside the food processing sector and are the sole providers of the solution worldwide.”

Meat processors and abattoirs represent a major sector for Systems Integration, says Service, with customers including Vantage Foods, which operates processing sites in the US and Canada, supplying millions of retail packs per week to leading retailers in the region.

“After an exhaustive search of system providers from around the world, we chose Systems Integration because of their unique specialisation in our industry (meat processing) and demonstrated ability to adapt their systems to our operations,” says Don Finstad, chief financial officer of Vantage Foods. “They have a comprehensive solution, built on the latest, industry-proven platforms, that satisfies our needs from the shop floor through to the back office.”

Traceability demands

Systems Integration also delivers IT solutions aimed at supporting traceability demands at the production end of the food chain. “Following a successful pilot trial in partnership with the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS), we are offering a solution that is fully compatible with the Cattle Tracing System’s new online reporting service,” says Service. “Our software integrates with the production cycle, allowing abattoirs to upload large amounts of data to their system quickly and easily. And, as the BCMS is hoping to eliminate the need to provide paper copies of the death page of each animal’s passport, our solution will become increasingly important.”

Further current projects include working with tag reader specialists to automate the collection and identification of individual ear tags information under the EID scheme for sheep, and Video Imaging Analysis (VIA) with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland.

“Integreater’s abattoir and producer payment applications have been adapted to integrate with the VIA hardware and software, allowing for seamless data transfer and management,” says Service. “It’s likely processors in other parts of the UK will be evaluating the benefits that this technology can provide for their own business and to the industry.”

At AC Software Solutions, sales manager Sarah Adams says: “All our operator terminals are linked to a central PC, so that product changes and label designs can be simply done in one place, and then sent to operators direct. This requires minimal operator intervention, and will automatically collect data from the manufacturing process in real time.

“The large 17-inch colour displays we install are very easy for operators to understand, and the information they feed back to managers allows them to monitor activity on the factory floor, from the comfort of their office.”

Using a ‘goods in’ touchscreen, EEC numbers for place of birth, rearing, slaughter and cutting plant are logged, alongside quality ratings, such as cleanliness of the delivery vehicle and whether the meat has been temperature-checked. A bar-code label is then produced for each product, with the information also sent to a database for record keeping and linked to existing third-party accounting systems to automatically create invoices.

Improving functionality

For Emydex Technology, current and future developments in IT offering the greatest potential for the meat trade include multilingual and production planning functionality and a standardised coding system for cuts. “Our system has always had multilingual capabilities if the user was prepared to translate the field names held in the system,” says Kettell. “We have recently completed an installation at a Dawn Meats site in France and, as part of that implementation, we upgraded our multilingual functionality.”

Emydex uses a translation tool to automatically transfer all fields in the system to the desired language, while also allowing scope for users to correct any errors. “This saves a large amount of time and effort on the behalf of the user,” says Kettell. “The system can automatically select the language of choice in accordance to the settings stored against the user log-in password.”

Emydex is also in the process of enhancing its production planning functionality to enable users to select criteria such as, for example, raw material stocks, sales orders, finished goods stock or labour availability and view the information on a single screen.

“The planner will then be able to select the relevant information and drop it into the plan,” says Kettell. “From discussions with our customers, they all have their own way of doing things. Our aim is to produce a module where the planner still has the freedom of choice about how to make the plan, and the system will just pull all of the information required into one place and crunch the numbers.”

Looking to the future, Kettell says Emydex already has the technology in place to roll out what it believes could generate the greatest improvement in efficiency, and thus returns, for meat processors — the introduction of a standardised coding system for cuts. “One of the biggest technology changes that could help the meat industry is available right now, but just not being implemented,” says Kettell. “If the industry would agree a standard coding system for cuts, then communications between systems in different plants and from different suppliers would be much easier. This type of product standardisation has already been implemented in other countries — the Danish pork and beef industry, for example.”

Introducing a single coding classification would facilitate generation of a standard electronic record for every pallet, box and even carcase shipped. “This record would typically include a unique identification number and then product details, traceability details, quality details and shelf-life details,” says Kettell. “Emydex is already using such a system to great effect between sites in a single company or trading partners. With the required planning, there is no reason why such a system could not be implemented on a countrywide basis, increasing the industry’s overall efficiency.”