Natures Way Foods’ journey towards digitalisation

Stewart Wilmot, head of IT of fresh and healthy food manufacturer, Natures Way Foods, talks about the four central pillars structuring the company’s journey of digitalisation.

Stewart Wilmot, head of IT, talks about the journey of digitilisation, Natures Way Foods has started.

The company began in 1994, when the Langmead brothers set up a small bagged salad operation. Their big idea was to combine the freshest lettuce with the latest food manufacturing technology based on digitalisation.

Since then, Natures Way Foods has grown by expanding the customer base and moving into new fresh convenient categories and product areas.

The Manufacturer recently sat down with Stewart Wilmot, head of IT, to talk about the journey of digitalisation, Natures Way Foods has started.

What prompted the business’ shift to digital manufacturing? 

We were shifting towards it anyway, but market forces have certainly fuelled our ambition of wanting to move that way.

Then there’s Brexit, which is going to put some real challenge back on to the business in terms of our labour and other cost base; and our consumers want value as well as great quality.

To deliver that we need to look at all our processes, which includes manufacturing and sourcing.

I believe that technology can answer many of these challenges as long as we employ it in the right way. Within that, the collection of data and its transformation to meaningful business insight, is by far the biggest opportunity and is something I am championing throughout the business.

It’s not just about IT operating in isolation, we are working very closely with the project engineers on the shop floor, for example. My role is to define how we join all the dots up, connecting operational factory technology and information technology through the use IoT and data exchange.

What are you hoping to achieve in terms tangible business benefits? 

RoI is hard to qualify, since it is still very new. But our strategy essentially has four inter-linked pillars to create a smart ecosystem of IT solutions: Quality, Automation, Visibility, and Predictability.

Quality is all about ensuring that the processes are all in place and drive efficiency. Digitising paperwork, for example, to ensure certain critical control points throughout our operation.

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For automation, we have a project ongoing at the moment exploring all of our manual processes, such as weighing the product, pouring, job picking.

We are integrating a new Manufacturing Execution System (MES) to fill in the gaps and help drive further efficiencies.

The MES will also help with our labour and training, alongside offering greater stock visibility. We keep very little stock on our shop floor because of its short shelf life; stock is in and out within 24 hours mostly, and if we get that wrong, it drives up waste and cost.

The MES is an IoT system and is heavily tied in to our ERP system, Microsoft Dynamics. My vision for a ‘smart connected factory’ is built on technology connecting disparate systems and operational technology to optimise information flow and drive greater visibility.

Visibility is about having real-time information, not post-action information. That allows us to deal with any issues at the time of occurrence, rather than letting it go on unseen for weeks on end.

It is about digitalising the information our staff see on the shop floor via very straight forward dashboards, or even going one step further and deploying smart tablets to provide instruction and works orders.

The fourth industrial revolution is being driven by digitisation, big data and other rapid advances in technology - Digital Disruption Manufacturing

It guarantees that people have real-time management information on them at all times, regardless of where they are.

It is all about making our staff efficient and having the tools for their job, rather than waste time having to continually return to a station or computer.

That allows us to transition from being reactive to predictive. Columbus and Microsoft are helping us look at the data that we can retrieve from the production lines, for example.

If a line is down, it’s costing us money, generating waste or worse still, impacting on our customer quality performance.

We can fix a line when it is broken. But wouldn’t it be better if we could use business intelligence (BI), sensors and machine learning to inform us before a problem happens.

Our machines will ‘phone home’ to our Engineering Support system, log a ticket for the engineer who is notified via their smart tablet, and they can go and deal with the problem at hand before it becomes a major critical issue.

Where have you seen the biggest change to date?

One of our primary objectives for 2017 was to better communicate and connect with our employees, from shop floor right to top management. It’s a journey we are still on, but it’s something we’ve worked hard to improve.

It’s too easy to become siloed or fall within a function, so we have broken down those barriers and made sure that every one of our employees are empowered, find BI easily and know what our strategy, our vision, is.

Our ERP system has allowed us to structure our data in one place. The next step is to collect this transactional data and move them to a data warehouse. We could then report on that data and have one accurate, real-time version of the truth.

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Columbus has been supporting that journey for some time now. This is our third year and we have really begun to reap the rewards of having very structured data.

We know where the data is, we know it’s well connected and now we are harvesting what we’ve put those efforts in to.

The biggest change to this organisation is the delivery of the strategy on our BI. We may only be halfway through our journey, but it has really allowed us to look inwards and see where some of our non-value-added work is taking place.

The strategy allows us to correct that, or at least to have a strategy to move forward to eradicate it and add value back into the business.

What are your next steps in terms of digital technology?

We have just come out of a demand forecasting programme of works where we brought in a tool that allowed our demand and sales forecasting to be far more accurate than we were ever hoping it could be.

It’s driving through a quicker and more refined S&OP; but we want to take that to the next level towards integrated business planning. That’s the next maturity curve for us.

Next month, I am putting together a visionary flash strategy meeting with the various functions of the business. Now we have a great ERP system. The next step is to identify all those niche areas in our business that an ERP system might not take care of, recipe optimisation, ingredients tracking or new product concept ideas, for example.

Workflow is probably the next step in our digital transformation, moving from paper to solid business tools that are digital workflow driven. This will be the next game changer, certainly from a central function. It will enable us to create a concept to deliver in a digital format.

Together with Columbus we are currently defining a strategy and we are aiming to have it delivered by 2020.

What has been the reaction from employees?

Rather than imposing change on people, it’s all about taking them on a journey of change. I don’t see us as the traditional IT department, where we go out pick a product and then throw it at the business. We work very closely with the business to understand their requirements, allowing them to help choose the solutions and come on the journey.

That is probably why we have, also thanks to the help of Columbus, a better technology adoption rate, certainly in the past five years. It’s more of an IT and business-led strategy, rather than solely an IT strategy.