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Better data connections lead to optimal decisions

Remember the game of “telephone”? One initial message is passed from person to person, and it’s completely different at the other end. Everyone doesn’t hear the original message, different interpretations are passed along, some links never hear the message at all, and it’s linear so it takes a long time.

The same thing goes for data transmitted throughout the supply chain or within a company. The COVID-19 disruptions pushed data challenges into the spotlight and created a sense of urgency.

Shortages on the shelf and supply dislocations prompted us to ask: How can we get data flowing to manage supply chain resiliently?

Digitalization can make “messaging” silo-resistant, consistent, and available in real time. Imagine information from the harvesting crew about yields, quality, timing, etc., is available real-time to the packinghouse, transportation department, sales team, and more. No waiting for field notes to be put into a database or, worse, a spreadsheet, or even worse, a paper trail or phone call.

In this edition of PMA Takes on Tech, we asked Seana Day and Brita Rosenheim of Culterra Capital about digitalization. Get the full podcast, where our speakers offer more detail on this topic, including implications for food waste, quality, safety, and more. Simply scroll to the April 13, 2021 edition of PMA Takes on Tech: “Why It’s Time To Invest in the Food Supply Chain and Where to Look.”

(Let’s quickly define two terms. Digitization means to convert something to a digital format, and usually refers to encoding data and documents. Digitalization means to convert business processes to use digital technologies, instead of analog or offline systems such as paper or whiteboards. Here, we are talking about digitalization, the processes.)

Company wide benefits
Investing in technology shouldn’t be a “nice to have” or a “next budget cycle” item. Digitalization can make your assets more productive and profitable. Your information currently is stored everywhere, from a veteran staffer’s “it’s in my head” system, to scraps of paper or even department spreadsheets and paper planning docs.

Every company needs a process that can bridge legacy systems, making essential information available to anyone that needs it, when they need it.

Why is that information essential? It feeds strategic decisions and initiatives, maximizes equipment use, supports sales and marketing, streamlines labor scheduling, and more. Inaccurate or missing information can cause significant missteps or errors.

Interoperability
I asked our experts about interoperability. Because there are a plethora of systems that usually don’t talk to each other, this is a huge issue – within companies and within the supply chain. For our purposes here, we’re talking about the “first mile” at the production level.

The challenges appear daunting – adopting new technologies, migrating existing systems and data, breaking down functional silos, and more. Our experts noted that spreadsheets and email remain the de facto technology standards for many industries, including food and agriculture.

And there’s the people factor – getting people to adopt these new methods. Even here at PMA BB #:153708, our new project management system allows everyone involved in the project to see real-time information and add their own inputs. We’re still working to get everyone on board. So we cannot minimize the challenges of change management for the people involved.

One quick example of success is a PMA member that dived into this new approach by adopting a data chain management system. Today, the folks in the field have tablets and they’re all seeing the same information.

They can make immediate decisions: How much are we harvesting? Where is the truck? Is there room in the plant? They used to have to call a number of people to get that information and often could not make real-time decisions.

The good news, according to the speakers, is that, like this company, more companies are using software to harmonize data. Pulling from multiple systems, software can integrate the systems for real-time planning, visibility, and decision making.

The first mile
Why are we focused on the first mile – production? Post-harvest activity has a huge impact on quality and shelf life: harvest labor/equipment planning, load scheduling/logistics, receiving, grading, QA/QC, storage, marketing/sales, etc. Add to that data sets for these activities that don’t necessarily go into a computer. They are in a notebook or someone’s head.

Right now, supply chain tech is highly fragmented, with a lot of legacy, specialized, or customized solutions. How do we create interoperability? What if everyone in the company had a line of sight to all of this? How could that happen?

Digitalization. The experts noted that this first mile is probably the least digitalized part of our supply chain. One of our speakers lives in the Central Valley of California.

She said: “I’ll drive by a field every couple of miles where you see 20 or 30 empty trailers, and you kind of scratch your head and think, ‘Wow, I wonder if there’s a way to better utilize or optimize the capital expenditure that’s gone into those 20 or 30 empty trailers.’ So really using technology to improve resource planning and allocation.”

That practical example sticks in my head. Empty trailers could be the icon for the call to digitalization – using technology to improve operations. In this case, we’ve talked mainly about the first mile, But this idea of information that is not trapped in department silos, workers’ heads, spreadsheets, or scraps of paper spans the supply chain. Digitalization offers us a path to better insights and decisions, greater efficiencies, and stronger supply chain relationships.

Need more information? Check out the podcast or contact me at vestes@pma.com.

Vonnie Estes is Vice President, Technology for the Produce Marketing Association, and she hosts the PMA Takes on Tech Podcast.