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The Mighty App

Mobile technology is the real deal for improving safety and efficiency

In a fast-moving industry like produce where seasonality, ripeness, and flavor can be fleeting, mobile technology would seem to be an ideal and valuable complement—so much so that we covered this subject in 2012. A great deal has changed in five years, but one thing hasn’t—there’s still some resistance within the supply chain to adapt. Fortunately, there are also ample signs the industry is finally ripe for a mobile revolution.

On-the-Go Support
Yes, there seems to be an app for nearly everything, and this has become increasingly true for the fresh produce industry as well. There are apps for many business functions, ready to measure and monitor product quality, track and expedite transportation services, or provide on-the-go support for field sales personnel with order entry, document processing, and mobile data management.

Some are proprietary, while others have a more universal appeal. “An app is designed,” believes Dan McGrath, market specialist at C.H. Robinson Worldwide/ Robinson Fresh in Minneapolis, MN, “to go immediately to the heartbeat of the company that designed it. In the produce industry, we’re bombarded with information relative to crops, yield, flavor profile, seasonality, supply increases and decreases, and price increases and decreases.”

The possibilities are truly endless, but which apps are most valuable and really live up to the hype? Is the technology easy to use with considerable ROI? We talked to industry members on both the buying and selling sides and a few software developers to find answers.

Demand for Mobile Tech
According to an international study conducted by Peerless Media in Framingham, MA for Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions in Golden Valley, MN, mobile tech-nology is high on the shopping lists of logistics managers across many disciplines and business categories, with more than a third planning to increase spending in the area.

Among the most sought after technology are programs to modernize operations and shave costs; coordinate devices and remote access; and manage data streams—all of which translate into the fresh produce industry. Resulting benefits run from optimizing labor resources and improving warehouse accuracy to streamlining inventory management processes.

With perishables, traceability and food safety are paramount—so it should be no surprise that today’s apps span from field to fork. There are apps to measure soil conditions, such as moisture and fertilizer levels, and others to monitor product during harvest, ripening, processing, or packing. There are also apps to track temperatures and pallets from loading to delivery, and sales tools galore to measure and showcase product, track inventory, eliminate redundant paperwork, and simplify the entire ordering process.

Practical Applications
We’ve established there is no shortage of mobile apps, but not everyone in fresh produce is using them. Some cite com-plexity and the inevitable learning curve that goes with the technology; a few lament the difficulties associated with small screens and tiny buttons, and others simply haven’t taken the time to research the cost or benefits. Advocates, however, have jumped happily on the bandwagon and are reaping the rewards.

Mountain View Fruit Sales, Inc. in Reedley, CA uses mobile technology in several capacities. Chad Cotton, the grower-shipper’s IT supervisor, embraces the use of mobile technology but says it is important to perform the proper due diligence to choose a compatible technology partner. Once this is ac-complished, there are many ways a company can benefit from mobile technology, from ripening processes to food safety.

“Our goal is for Summeripe to be a conditioned brand and provide what we call the ultimate eating experience,” Cotton says. To help in this effort, the company subscribes to Lotpath, Inc.’s quality control services, which can be used on a smart-phone or a tablet. “There’s a lot of science involved in evaluating what ripens the best, and this helps us be efficient. It helps with executing the science of conditioning and ripening in ways that could never really be done before.”

Better yet, Cotton shares, “We can look at an entire season in retrospect and really drill into it without rustling a whole bunch of papers.” For both Cotton and Mountain View, the new tech can not only streamline postharvest processes but has “eliminated a massive amount of paperwork.”

High-Tech Convenience
Maykel Lopez, sales broker at Arizona Mixers Fresh Produce in Rio Rico, AZ, also appreciates the convenience and speed of mobile technology to get his job done. Lopez sends photos of product to cus-tomers with text messages, and uses Blue Book’s own mobile app to look up customer information when he is out of the office.

For many, connecting to company data while away from the office is a key benefit of new apps, emphasizing the ‘mobile’ of mobile technology. Santa Cruz, CA-based Simplified Software is all about this type of convenience for sales per-sonnel. The company has mobile apps tied to two software programs called Produce Advantage and Broker Advantage. “Tracking business in real time, on-the-go with mobile apps can save time, eliminating duplicate even triplicate work, and headaches,” contends company owner Greg Mainis.

“It is so much easier to track an order at the time it occurs, rather than after the fact from a collection of papers, notes, or receipts that are piled up in a glove box or the seat of a car,” Mainis says. “Produce Advantage and Broker Advantage take the complexity of ordering, buy-sell, and transportation, and consolidate it into a simple mobile interface that gives the user full order processing with complete [documentation]. The user has the ability to add or view an order, make changes, and email or fax the applicable doc-uments for the truck, customer, and vendor or supplier from the mobile app,” he explains.

The overriding goal is convenience. Mainis cites an example: “You’re out of the office and get a call from a client. All you have with you is your cell phone. Now you can access orders anywhere, anytime, as long as they’re connected to your data.” The system works on desktops, laptops, touch screens, tablets, and smartphones with most operating systems.

Managing Data
In addition to reducing paperwork and streamlining operations is data man-agement. iFoodDecisionSciences, based in Seattle, WA, offers tailored mobile data management solutions for companies to put their own data to work for them.

“By nature, the produce industry is mobile,” points out iFood’s chief executive officer Diane Wetherington. “We move from field to field as we change the crops we produce. Because operations change, software must be flexible in terms of functionality, time to implement, and cost to manage and change.

“Mobile applications today,” continues Wetherington, “whether they’re in the field capturing production data or in the facility validating food safety systems, offer data collection efficiencies, real-time results, and insight into potential problems. In the near term, those applications will provide on-the-spot risk assessments based on real-time circumstances.”

Food Safety
With new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) implementations on the horizon, such applications could be a critical tool, capturing data for use by grower-shippers, foodservice, distributors, and shipping companies. Working on tablets, personal computers, and in some cases smartphones, iFood tools can streamline food safety operations and provide real-time electronic alerts to support customer and FSMA requirements.

Food safety can also be addressed to varying degrees in ripening rooms, pack houses, and storage facilities with mobile apps. As mentioned earlier, Cotton and Mountain View use one of Fresno, CA-based Lotpath, Inc.’s services, but there are several available to meet the needs of growers and distributors large and small.

Lotpath Quality, a web-based program, has an accompanying mobile app called Lotpath Inspector. “Lotpath Inspector allows people to inspect fresh produce; users can record quality data and take photos,” shares Mike Dodson, company president. Inspections are customized, he says, based on the type of commodity and the point in the supply chain where the inspections are taking place.

Lotpath Quality is sold as a monthly subscription, with pricing based on the number of account users and devices using the Inspector app. For Dodson, using such technology is a no brainer: “Almost everyone working in the produce industry carries a smartphone; using a smartphone to do your daily work is transformative.”

“In general, we feel this area is exploding right now,” agrees Dave Donat, president and produce manager for Produce Pro of Woodridge, IL. “The produce industry has unique needs centered around the just-in-time nature of the business—mobile fits this perfectly.”

In or Out of the Office
Indeed, Produce Pro offers a number of mobile apps for the perishables supply chain, including a driver app that tracks both trucks and deliveries in real time (it also allows customers to sign on a tablet, eliminating paper and emailing receipts); a ‘checkout’ app for mobile ordering from websites; a quality control app to perform product inspections in the warehouse; and a customer management app for outside sales reps to supply information about existing customers and prospects.

“All of our apps are designed with a common purpose: to untether users from their desks, in the very spots where it makes the most sense. Our user base is increasingly demanding on-the-go information; they also want to be able to record data in real time,” says Donat.

It is also important to look to the future. “Our customer base is driving innovation constantly, always coming up with new ways that mobile devices can help them be more efficient,” continues Donat. “It’s our job to respond to those ideas, and craft solutions that put our customers ahead of the game.”

Concluding Thoughts
In all business sectors, time is money—but in the perishables industry, it’s critical, and mobile apps can lend a much-needed hand. Though current use and acceptance may still be slow in some pockets of the produce business, it is inevitable that industry-specific mobile technologies will catch on with companies of all sizes in the very near future.

Here are a few things we’ve established in this update on mobile apps: 1) they’re here to stay; 2) they can monitor product in myriad ways, including for ripeness, optimal salability, and food safety; 3) they can track shipments from dock to destination; 4) they can reduce paperwork through the elimination of hard-copy receipts and invoices; and 5) they can place a wealth of information at your fingertips. So what lies ahead?

Arizona Mixers’ Lopez, for one, believes the use and creation of mobile technology will continue to rise. “Every year,” he predicts, “it’s going to be used more and more.”

At Simplified Software, efforts are underway to increase comfort and usability. There’s already a reengineered interface to give users larger buttons for easier data entry and navigation, and future program enhancements include inventory control, traceability, acc-ounting, and better reporting capabilities. Developers there and at other software services firms will also continue to customize mobile apps, tailoring cap-abilities to a client’s particular needs.

Future Quest
Randy Wilson, owner of the Randy Wilson Company in Bakersfield, CA, remains a mobile app holdout himself, but is intrigued by the use of product images. “I think you’re going to see more videos of product being packed and loaded on trucks. Instead of just a bill of lading, you’ll get a video in the file as well.” And though he currently does not possess a mobile app, “We’re working with people who have GoPro-type cameras in their glasses so they can take a video while the forklift driver is loading the truck.”

Ron Conrad, in domestic sales for Rainier Fruit Company in Selah, WA, is looking forward to better data management from sensors, which will provide faster communication between computers, equipment, people, and mobile devices. “I’d like to have them for my inventories, but we don’t have that kind of integration yet.”

Paul Pappas, vice president of operations at Pete Pappas & Sons in Jessup, MD, is a fan of eliminating the paper trail, with receivers signing on mobile devices instead of hard-copy invoices or bills of lading.

Last, but not least, comes a thought from Kyle Stone, general administrator at Ben B. Schwartz & Sons, Inc. in Detroit, MI. He views the mobile revolution a bit differently—he doesn’t bemoan the use of mobile apps or new technology at all, but thinks there is room for improvement. With all the mobile apps currently available in the marketplace, there is certainly overlap in services and capabilities, and probably some confusion.

“What the industry needs,” Stone observes, “is a harmonized standard—if everybody gets the same app, that would be cool.”

Images: A_KUDR, TeddyandMia, Icon Craft Studio, Anton V. Tokarev & 3RUS/


Dan Alaimo is a writer/editor specializing in the supply chain, technology, and marketing of food and related products.