What does IT all mean for food manufacturing?

Digital services and IT play a prominent and fundamental role in any effective production line for today’s food manufacturers.

Much like electricity and water, we expect our IT provision to just ‘work’ and be there when we need it. Only when there’s a problem, do we realise the vulnerabilities in the IT chain and how much we rely on this fundamental service.

As engineering experts to the food industry, we have seen the costly impact on production lines when IT systems go down or services have been hacked.

We caught up with IT company, Rochester and Associates Ltd who specialise in the manufacturing sector, to find out about the IT challenges and opportunities facing food manufactures and how an effective IT system can help you scale up your food and drink business.

  • What are some of the key changes you’ve seen when it comes to IT and manufacturing over the last 12 months?

As you can imagine, over the last 12 months talk within the manufacturing sector has very much aligned itself with the problems of the wider world: Brexit and Covid19. Generally speaking, the biggest problem we have found the industry to be up against is information, or a lack thereof. In 2019, everything was about GDPR, and the worry was that there was just too much information – it was almost system overload with the amount of guidance and conversation about data security. This year has been quite the opposite. Peace of mind, safety, business security – these feelings have been missing because of a lack of clarity in knowledge around both Brexit and Covid19. No one likes that feeling of the unknown and so it is understandable that within the sector we have had people asking more questions about these things in line with their IT and systems.

When it comes to manufacturing, this industry has not seen the benefits of home/remote working like other service-based organisations have, because on a large scale you cannot manufacture products from your spare bedroom. Similarly, having to hire temporary workers when people have fallen ill or had to isolate has impacted product creation due to a lack of technical and specialist knowledge. We are lucky that factories, for example, are so vast in size; social distancing in a large room is much easier!

Our priority this year has been ensuring that our clients feel secure and productive while all this has been happening.

  • What are the main challenges for manufacturers when it comes to IT?

The major challenge within the manufacturing sector is productivity.

When running a manufacturing or production line, the number one priority is exactly that: production. When linking this with IT, reliability is key as if production goes down on a 24/7 production line, there is no capacity for it to ‘catch up’. A main barrier here is often the software or technology which machinery is running through. Where these bespoke software or technology become out of date this can heavily impact the reliability of machinery, which ultimately results in a lack of confidence in your systems. No business owner wants to feel this.

  • What are the main opportunities that manufacturers could take advantage of when it comes to their IT systems?

When considering things which manufacturers could benefit from, specifically around IT systems a few things come to mind:

  • Video Conferencing
  • Grants and Funding
  • Better, more efficient controls (ERP and MRP)

While video conferencing and remote working won’t help the immediate day to day work within a firm, what these systems do allow for are more transparent and higher quality communication internationally. Programmes like Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Skype can make liaising with international stakeholders (employees, partners and suppliers) more effective and efficient. Less time chasing international suppliers means more time to tick other things off your to do list.

Another opportunity lies within the grant and funding space. There are specific, location-oriented grants available for advancements in technology and innovation which would hugely benefit manufacturers. Alternatively, manufacturers may also be able to claim R&D Tax Credits from HMRC, providing tax relief or a cash injection based on the fact that they have spent money on developing new products, processes or services; or if they have enhanced existing ones. This could be the difference between investing in a new piece of software which indicates errors or faults within the production line, and significant downtime when fulfilling contracts.

Manufacturers can use an MRP system to manage planning in many areas including production, forecasting, purchasing, deliveries and it can also be integrated with suppliers’ databases via APIs, enabling supply chain management. All of which will make processes more efficient.

  • What is the biggest misconception when it comes to IT?

The biggest misconception we face is that IT and IT development is expensive and incorporate costs which don’t add to the value of the business. We also see organisations which don’t think they are significant enough to get hacked or believe they are secure without really knowing. When we have conversations like this, it is all about understanding where these thoughts come from. Think about it like insurance – you have home insurance because it is advised, and provides a safety blanket for your family if anything goes wrong. IT strategies and systems run on the same principle. By investing in security, and training your staff on how to use systems effectively, you are protecting your business from potential economic and reputational damage should anything happen.

  • What advice would you give to food and drink manufacturers when it comes to their IT plans who are at the beginning of their journey but looking to scale up?

As with building a house, it is really important to start with the foundations and infrastructure. If these aren’t solid before you start building you could face collapse. In being more literal, this includes things like security provision and backups. Where do you start here? Research. Research the software you’re thinking of using before purchase; ask your team what issues they have which might need addressing in the long-term; if you research prior to setup you’re more likely to buy products which match the growth plans of your business, rather than having to update things in the short term because they are already out of date.

My final piece of advice would be to check with a third party that you are as secure and efficient as possible. For a member of staff earning £25,000 per year, with 15 minutes of downtime a day, you’re looking at a cost of £800 per year for that one member of staff simply because your IT isn’t working as it should be. As a new business, this is a cost which you shouldn’t have to pay. Therefore, make sure all the boxes are ticked to a good standard before you begin. We have a free IT audit which shows you exactly this and would advise starting here when thinking about investing in or changing any systems.

Rochester & Associates are offering a free IT audit, they guarantee will add value to your business. Call Tor Mackenzie on either 01274 662953 or 07775 800156 to book.

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