Maintaining product quality while expanding into new global markets is a major challenge for today's food suppliers. Dr Raimund Hoenes of Glanbia Nutritionals explores the advantages of using integrated quality management systems focusing on information transfer and the minimisation of human error.
As consumer food, beverage and supplement companies expand the availability of their products to markets around the globe, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Just one tiny error can trigger a production nightmare.
"If you've got different systems and plans across global manufacturing sites, there's a high risk of product inconsistency," says Dr Raimund Hoenes, CEO of customised solutions at Glanbia Nutritionals, a segment of the company expert in active ingredients and customised premixes. "You may even be unaware that there's a variation between the goods you're producing in different countries."
How then can manufacturers ensure a seamless product launch into a new market? It sounds impossible, but that is the driving vision behind Glanbia Nutritionals' network of four modern, integrated manufacturing sites - two in the US, one in China, and a newly built facility in Germany.
The obvious advantage of working with a premix and ingredients partner that operates multiple facilities around the world is that the customer can take delivery close to where they're doing business, cutting lead times and saving on shipping costs. But there is also a network effect - a multiplication of benefits - that results when these various locations are connected through a sophisticated quality management system. It integrates information and automates activities across an entire organisation, from procurement and logistics, to product development and manufacturing, sales and service, and operations analytics.
"It focuses on integrating our enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which uses SAP, with Glanbia's product development management (PDM) software," Hoenes explains. "We use it to develop all the recipes and formulas for our customers. There are also a number of checks in place to ensure we don't create something that isn't practically possible."
When Glanbia Nutritionals rebuilt its German plant in Orsingen a year ago, it invested in a state-of-the-art quality management system, now implemented at all four facilities, to automate key operational functions. Entering the Orsingen facility, you might think you're on a futuristic film set. All is quiet except for the low hum of the gleaming, stainless steel machinery and focused effort of highly trained workers. In blending rooms so clean you could eat off the surfaces, cutting-edge blenders cater to the widest batch production criteria, from pilot test batches to multiple-ton blends.
A sophisticated, computerised process control system guides every activity. Using terminals at each workstation, every activity is monitored and quality-controlled, from the current location of every forklift and bag of material to the exact formulation that goes into each customer's premix and detailed specifications for how each blend is to be packaged. Sensitive enough to measure as little as a single gram or as much as a thousand kilos, if the system detects anything is amiss, production shuts down immediately.
The beauty of the technology is that it not only meticulously tracks and assures quality at every step, but also that this critical knowledge can be shared. The connectivity between facilities means the exact same product can be manufactured in a totally different place, resulting in tremendous savings in time, energy and money (not to mention worry). All of the information stored at one plant can be seamlessly transferred to another at a moment's notice. There is no need for customers to qualify different ingredients, transfer their manufacturing protocol, vet the facility's quality management system or make sure the new plant understands their delivery requirements - it's all automatic.
Yet this is no simple data dump from one location to another; the system is flexible enough to change specific elements at each manufacturing location as needed. For example, nuanced formulation differences can be enacted for specific markets and the appropriate protocol for meeting different local regulatory specifications can be programmed into the system.
"The other key benefit of the system is that it facilitates experience interchange," says Hoenes. "With a connected network of people working on different projects, ideas can be swapped and quickly developed. It also stops people reinventing the wheel over and over again - once a problem is solved in one place, the solution can be applied everywhere."
With everything run systematically through completely integrated systems, the opportunity for human error is also minimised. Companies really can ensure a seamless product launch wherever in the world their business is expanding.
"I'm very optimistic about the future of integrated quality management systems," says Hoenes. "Particularly in the wake of all the recent food scandals, people want to be sure they're receiving good-quality products that have been fully tested and can be relied upon. That's exactly what our system offers."