A world of produce data can be in the palm of your hand.
Tomorrow’s watermelons, tomatoes and strawberries will enter the high-tech Cloud at harvest, if not sooner, and remain there in transit to the packing shed, on to the distribution center and on to the produce department shelf.
This new age of produce distribution will be built on the ability to store information without pen, paper or even wires, and retrieve it quickly and easily from anywhere in the world with an inexpensive portable device.
“Hosting services, now known as ‘The Cloud,’ have been a choice leading-edge solution for Silver Creek Software clients for about 10 years, and is an ever-increasing way to run business with our technical staff handling the day-to-day maintenance, administrative information technology tasks, such as anti-virus concerns and back-up processes and hardware updates,” says Tina Reminger, vice president and general manager of Silver Creek Software, Boise, ID. “This is a revolutionary way to do business without the information technology-concern hassles.”
“The trend has been and will be to move to Cloud-based systems and use the internet to communicate more effectively,” says Charles Shafae, president of dProduce Man Software, Half Moon Bay, CA. “Previously, this type of communication was used only for larger companies that had access to more sophisticated hardware and software. Today, with the progression and ease of accessibility to the internet, more people can communicate and transfer electronic data through this medium.”
Produce entered the computer age with the need to be able to track fruits and vegetables back to the field for purposes of food safety recalls. The industry is now poised on the edge of an era in which a wealth of information is available literally in the palm of one’s hand.
“Users want tools that simplify their lives,” says Reminger. “Mobile integrated tech seems to be where everyone is headed. Flexibility will be important. Mobile and online apps are still going to be hugely important in the next five years.”
Fasten your seat belt because the pace of change in how we store and access information about produce is about to accelerate beyond anything previously imagined.
“The produce industry is changing more quickly now than ever before — the next five years in the produce supply chain world will see more change in technology than in a previous generation,” says Mick Hetherington, vice president of sales for Prophet North America, Bakersfield, CA. “The world is becoming more connected; it is now possible to electronically integrate the whole supply chain from growers to consumers.”
One Program, Many Devices
The technology driving advances in distribution software will be small, portable and relatively inexpensive.
“Mobile devices such as smartphones, notebooks and devices readily available to users are fueling the need to upgrade software,” says Shafae. “These devices are multi-functioning, less bulky to carry around, and they cost much less than a laptop or desktop computer.”
In addition to the smartphone and similar portable smart devices that access information from anywhere, the economical RFID tag will transmit information on particular produce shipments to the Cloud.
“As things move forward with RFID technology, I think you’ll see a resurgence of interest in how much software can help,” says Steve Dean, general manager of ProWare Services, Plant City, FL. “You can read it every time the produce comes in and out of the cooler.”
Software developers are already designing products that will use these two simple tools — the RFID tag and the smartphone — to allow quick and easy access to information about harvesting, shipping, packing, storing and merchandising produce.
“Users are accustomed to getting a new app or software, and find it is easy to jump into and start using,” says Reminger. “Software also needs to become part of the process. I think machine learning and the internet of things are very important. I’m really happy with the level of innovation. Things are constantly getting better and faster.”
In the future, produce will be tracked and managed much the same way as we already look up the weather, navigate highways, or read the news.
“Mobility is a trend,” says dProduce Man Software’s Shafae. “Today, everyone relies on their smartphone to get information and conduct business. The trend is to be able to create, print, email and fax right from your mobile device 24/7/365.”
Software will also be the linchpin that allows workers to access the same network of information from either a desktop computer at the office or a smartphone.
“Mobility is a trend. Today, everyone relies on their smartphone to get information and conduct business. The trend is to be able to create, print, email and fax right from your mobile device 24/7/365.”
— Charles Shafae, dProduce Man Software
“It’s now possible to develop highly configurable mobile applications that are device-independent,” says Hetherington. “This is something Prophet has been perfecting in the past couple of years. We can now deliver any of our powerful workspaces launched through any browser. For example, while sales or procurement staff are away from the office, they can utilize highly configurable applications to enter and adjust sales or purchase orders, allocate to inventory, or manage trouble or claims transactions — from any device with a browser. The quality assurance team can be completely mobile, too, with the ability to configure all kinds of testing regimes with ease.”
Software designed to be suited for portability is part of a brave new world in which access to information does not require physically being in the office, and is not limited to a particular time of day.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, we are in a 24/7/364 work mode,” says Shafae. “Users need to be able to get the information they need from their system when they need it, no matter where they are and what device they are using. It is important this information be available to them in an up-to-date and concise manner. Cloud-based enterprise resource program systems will be the vehicle to get this done.”
One Program, Many Functions
Software is becoming available making it simple to track produce shipping and storing, and even relate that information to future sales projections.
Technology will continue to help track produce in the event of food safety recalls, but tomorrow’s produce shippers, receivers and retailers will also expect to be able to routinely track their rolling inventory.
“From a software development standpoint, distributors need the ability to quickly and easily see what products have been received, the quantity of certain products that are available and where the products need to be distributed to,” says Terry Nolan, regional manager at Dimensional Insight, Burlington, MA.
Inventory management in real-time will be part of putting a full range of information about the business of going from farm to fork in the palm of your hand.
“The industry also needs software that can integrate data across platforms to allow for the constant analysis of product distribution decisions and forecasts in a timely manner,” says Nolan. “The result of this type of software is a complete view of the distributor’s operations combined with shipments, open sales orders, purchase orders, receipts and shipment goals to ensure distributors are meeting critical performance measures.”
New portable technology will also let produce shippers and retail managers simply open an app on their smartphones and track the efficiency of packinghouse operations that ship to their distribution centers.
“There are ways software will track the packing of the product as it goes through the process,” says ProWare Service’s Dean. “Take the example of watermelons. Some people don’t track receiving of the bulk at the packinghouse. In the manufacturing world, the processing has been an area to focus on. You track how much raw material and labor to make a certain amount of product.”
Squeezing the last drop of efficiency out of the process of moving produce from the field to the consumer’s kitchen will become the norm in a more tech-driven, competitive produce business.
“As the industry becomes ever more competitive, productivity gains, cost reduction, and waste reduction through better planning are essential to maintain profitability,” says Prophet North America’s Hetherington. “This integration within the supply chain, together with flexible and deeply functional applications, and fast, accurate business planning software are key areas in which Prophet’s customers have seen major business benefits in recent years.”
Some packers are already using new software technology to step up the efficiency of their operation.
“We have a number of clients who have worked very hard to automate their production facilities to drive cost out of their operations,” says Hetherington. “Pr3 can communicate to and from graders, packing machinery, conveyers, weighers, fork operators and even label software. The software sends instructions to the machinery and receives detail of activity in order to track progress and adjust ongoing tasks.”
At the distribution center, better and faster information about what produce has been received, and when, will help reduce spoilage.
“Accurate, paperless receiving and shipping of the products can help with inventory management,” says Shafae. “We will have systems where the user can initiate a purchase order, confirm the order and later receive the product all by just using their smartphone, which sends and receives the information to the cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP).”
Inventory and warehouse management will become easier, not harder, as well as more efficient, once all the tools are mobile and simple to operate.
“Software, like business intelligence capabilities, allows produce distributors to optimize inventory levels, minimize unprofitable downtime and conduct in-depth analyses to capitalize on the efficiency of the manufacturing process.”
— Terry Nolan, Dimensional Insight
“There is currently no 100 percent efficient way to do all the warehouse functions,” says Silver Creek Software’s Reminger. “You still end up at a terminal at some point, and that is inefficient. Companies investing in online ordering or mobile apps will have a leg up against their competitors.”
These inventory management programs can be connected to other modules used to predict future sales.
“It is very difficult to achieve live planning with many disparate systems and often different databases in play,” says Hetherington. “The only way to produce accurate and timely information is to have a fully integrated system with a material requirements planning (MRP)application running over it.”
Because the new technology can be intimidating, one standard will be whether the system is easy to understand and inexpensive to operate, because your software supplier does all the hard stuff.
The new technology will be supported by phones and other portable devices that can process and integrate a wealth of information with previously unimaginable speed.
“As the processor time gets better, it makes the software time more seamless,” says ProWare Services’ Dean. “Now you’ve got processor time in your phone that is 10 times what it was a few years ago. Wireless connectivity is so much better. You can get wireless connectivity that is as good as hard wired.”
Speed is particularly important in tracking produce because time literally kills the product.
“Produce has such a short shelf life, so it’s extremely important distributors have a detailed look at their inventory levels to ensure profitability is not being impacted by insufficient or surplus stock,” says Dimensional Insight’s Nolan. “Software, like business intelligence capabilities, allows produce distributors to optimize inventory levels, minimize unprofitable downtime and conduct in-depth analyses to capitalize on the efficiency of the manufacturing process.”
Software will provide this speedy access to an incredible amount of changing information in a format that is simple to understand on a device that is easy to carry.
“Today’s distributors need access to near real-time information, fast,” says Nolan. “While the majority of software was initially designed for desktops, the latest solutions are tailored for a mobile workforce.”
There are some software programs that moderate the need for processor speed by allowing individuals or departments to use just that part of the system they need to do their part of the job.
“We are strong believers in creating and delivering highly configurable software to provide a solution tailored to the specifics of the user’s role,” says Profit’s Hetherington. “Our applications are delivered as a toolset to enable our clients to both design and configure the system for themselves, should they wish to. We are able to achieve flexible and nimble solutions without the need of programmer involvement. The result: faster and better deployments and easy-to-change work flows that can adapt to business changes as they happen.”
The time is quickly coming when even medium-sized retailers and shippers will have no competitive option but to, pardon the pun, get with the program.
“Some people are still trying to figure out what their software does,” says Dean. “The smaller companies just fly by the seat of their pants. There are better ways to manage this, but it takes more licensing for software, and another person.”