Produce companies looking to save time and   money and improve accuracy and efficiencies in their warehouses and processing operations increasingly are looking to new software and technology to fill those needs.

“We’re noticing (more) of our customers going into a warehouse management type of software system than ever before,” said Marc Hatfield, national sales manager for Produce Pro Software, Woodridge, Ill.

Companies are finding that technology is key to improving warehouse efficiencies, he said.

When produce operations decide to upgrade their facilities to stay competitive, they’re finding out what technology is available to them, said Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for the United Fresh Produce Association.

“That’s what it’s really all about — process improvement,” he said.

For Four Seasons Produce Inc., Ephrata, Pa., and its family of companies, implementing the latest technology is nothing new, said Nelson Longenecker, vice president for business innovation.

The company introduced routing technology about 18 years ago, labor management about 16 years and a warehouse management system about 12 years ago, he said. And the firm has remained “active in implementing technology when we feel it’s mature enough to drive business results” ever since, he said.

Four Seasons has a full-time employee who is “focused on continuous improvement,” Longenecker said.

When it seems that a project is getting “creaky,” it’s time to take another look at it, he said.


‘Astounding’ results

Operations managers says it’s astounding what they can do with software interfacing with equipment, Vache said.

Optical sorters are becoming more and more common when packing items like cherries, citrus, apples and tree fruit, he said.

“It’s such a good tool. They can see the size, color, internal and external, pressure and sugar levels,” he said. “It’s no longer just the human eye looking at it.”

In addition, using the latest software, operators can dial in customized specifications for individual buyers.

Besides putting up a better-quality, more consistent pack, the systems can save labor, which “is no longer cheap.”

“The capital expenditure is going to be there,” he said, “but there is a return on the investment.”

Also, software can be upgraded to meet future needs, Vache said.

Today, more fresh-cut processors are looking into software like that offered by San Diego-based Produce Magic that provides features like packaging bill of materials with automatic inventory tracking and product input recipe features as well as packout and processing programs, said Violet Kiss, chief financial officer and vice president of marketing.

Using software with an input product recipes feature, it’s simple to create “kits” for salad, vegetable or fruit mixes or blended products like salsa, she said.

Planned product yields are factored into quantity needed for each input product, she said, so that packaging material and input product can be planned, allocated and picked before production starts on work orders.

Actual labor cost, automatic average labor cost and automatic allocated overhead costs can be linked to work orders, Kiss said.


Harnessing ‘tribal knowledge’

Ken Mullen, managing partner at Envista LLC, an Indianapolis-based enterprise and consulting firm, said he’s helping companies incorporate “tribal knowledge” from highly trained inspectors in the warehouse into a software system.

“A lot of time those individuals just kind of know what they know,” he said.

“The challenge for companies is, if those people aren’t there, how do they get that same level of quality into their process?”

There are warehouse management systems in the marketplace that allow for that work flow and tribal knowledge to be implemented without those experts being there, or as a guide to USDA-certified people to make sure they are going through the proper checks and balances and have an audit trail or transaction history to support that, he said.

“We’re seeing companies invest in the technology to help ensure that that level of credibility and freshness is preserved,” he said.

Hatfield said he has found that many produce companies build on their main core system, like Produce Pro Software, to make their warehouses more efficient.

Voice technology, for example, allows pickers to pick more efficiently and run the operation from a more efficient standpoint.

Software associated with the Produce Traceability Initiative also can help improve on miss-packs and improve accuracy and speed in the warehouse, he said.

“And inventory control is a big thing — knowing what you have on hand, knowing what is coming in and going out and getting a handle on shrink.”

Costs vary on a case-by-case basis when implementing new technology or software, Vache said.

“It depends on what your starting point is,” he said. For example, some equipment can be bolted onto existing equipment. “You’ve got to sit down and extrapolate,” he said.

 “Look at all the things you can gain,” he said, noting reduced labor costs and improved quality.


Goal is service

Four Seasons’ overall goal is to “serve customers more effectively and more cost-effectively in the long term,” Longenecker said.

The company hires project managers and business analysts to “identify ways they can go after more current solutions.”

At times, Four Seasons has called on consultants to help with projects, but the firm generally prefers to handle projects in-house in order to “build those capabilities for seeking improvements into our organization,” Longenecker said.

“If you can dedicate folks within the organization that know the business and can focus their efforts on seeking improvements, you’ll continue to move your efforts to the next level,” he said.

Payback doesn’t always come quickly, but Four Seasons seeks aggressive payback periods because the company likes having cash available to make continuing improvements, he said.

“We’ve had some large projects in the past that have given us payback in as quickly as 18 months or 24 months,” he said.

There’s always a learning curve when dealing with new software and new technology, and Four Seasons has had some “learning experiences” along the way, Longenecker said.

For example, when the company implemented a warehouse management system, it tried to launch the program at multiple locations at once.

“We had to take a step back and go at it again five or six weeks later at a single location and phase it across the organization over time,” Longenecker said.

The firm may have been too aggressive in its estimate of the speed with which the changes could be implemented, he said.


Choosing a consultant

Be diligent if you decide to go with an outside consultant to help you choose the technology or software that’s right for you.

Here are some suggestions from Vache and Longenecker:

Get references. Even new companies should have some references.

Ask about their experience with the type of software or technology you have in mind.

Ask what their install time will be and inquire about downtime.

If they’re installing new technology, ask whether it’s proven technology that’s not going to break down in the middle of the day or have a glitch.

Deal with established companies that have earned a favorable reputation in the marketplace.

Ask what training and support they offer and consider the ability of your employee base to adapt to that.

Look for someone with proven experience in food distribution or a similar kind of business.

“(Consultants) are the folks who are immersed in selection and implementation of tools on a regular basis,” Longenecker said. “That knowledge can be very valuable.”