This article was published in the December 2022 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our December digital edition. 

The need for product traceability, as well as increased efficiency and automation in production, are just a few reasons pet food processors are turning to various plant management systems as important tools for managing and growing operations.

These systems can help regulate all parts of the manufacturing process, from acting as a database of tasks and ideas to determining proper cook times. Across the board, these programs are making facilities more user-friendly than ever and giving employees more ownership in their work.


Growing operations with digital tools

Plex Systems, Troy, Mich., offers a suite of plant management solutions including enterprise resource planning, manufacturing execution systems, quality management systems, and asset performance management solutions. James Bresler, director of product management for food and beverage, said these solutions were designed to be scalable and support growth, including new facility construction and acquisition.

“This approach enables an end-to-end view of operations and how new facility acquisitions will impact existing production and procurement processes,” Bresler said.

Barrett Petfood Innovations, Brainerd, Minn., previously used a series of binders to track the arrival of raw materials as well as the shipping of final products, and in the event of a recall, it would have taken the team 20 minutes to locate documents referencing where contaminated products shipped. After implementing Plex’s enterprise resource planning system, Bresler said the company no longer relies on paper and binders to track materials and goods, and it can quickly access full traceability using the solution.

Bresler said Barrett Petfood Innovations also improved inventory management with Plex’s solutions, which allowed the company to move from manual recording of inventory to managing inventory procurement and planning in real time, improving efficiency and allowing for the planning of facility expansion and growth.

“Robust enterprise resource planning, with accurate inventory forecasting and management technology, enables Plex customers to integrate new facilities quickly because they can visualize the impact those facilities will have on existing procurement and production across the company’s network of plants,” Bresler said. “Our templated implementation methodology allows rollout to subsequent facilities in rapid succession based on the template built during the implementation of the first plant.”

For added ease of use, Plex has focused on functioning in a cloud environment to allow customers to share the same enhancements and software code at the same time, eliminating the need for software upgrades, Bresler said.


Maximizing idea generation 

Before expanding a plant, managers need to make sure they are functioning at optimal efficiency with their current machines and facility. Errette Dunn, chief executive officer of San Francisco, Calif.-based Rever, said many of the company’s customers have been able to increase overall equipment effectiveness from 67% to more than 85% and thus justify and finance an expansion of its facilities.

“These best practices are then used for designing the ideal production line by incorporating the lessons of the past,” said Errette Dunn, Rever.

While Rever is primarily used for running operations and managing people, tasks, problems and ideas, Dunn said all those inputs can be used to design a manufacturing process when a manager wants to avoid previous issues around quality, liability or productivity.

“It becomes a de-facto repository of best practices,” Dunn said. “These best practices are then used for designing the ideal production line by incorporating the lessons of the past.”

When a worker observes a problem on a production line, whether that be a quality issue or machine breakdown, they can record it in the system and the application automatically searches for similar words from the same organization, finds where the problem has happened before, and offers solutions that were previously implemented.

“Instead of the person reinventing the wheel and developing a solution from scratch, Rever is presenting previous solutions of the same organization that can just be reimplemented,” Dunn said. “Our customers usually reutilize this experience and knowledge of the problems and the solutions by reimplementing those solutions across their network of factories, or if they develop a new production line, they also gather all of these lessons learned.”

Rever also works to improve preventive maintenance and machine breakdowns before they occur by detecting possible issues and sending alerts.

The company’s clients include Mars Petcare, McLean, Va., which has used the solution to channel creativity and implement associates’ ideas.

Integrating other programs into the solution is a focus going forward. Since most plant managers are already using Microsoft programs like Teams, Excel and PowerPoint, Dunn said his company is currently collaborating with Microsoft to seamlessly integrate its programs into Rever.

“We are building a bridge between the office environment and management and people who are on the front line of the shop floor of operations,” Dunn said.

Bresler also said Plex’s systems help boost corporate culture standards by allowing new facility teams feel like they are part of a larger network.

Cultivating relationships with factory teams is also a focus for Miami-based Redzone. The company offers a social and coaching platform to pet food processing plants to help workers communicate, collaborate and problem-solve on the shop floor. The program is designed to give frontline teams the autonomy to take ownership over their roles and create a culture of collaboration.

The company also conducted a study indicating plants that use the solution found significant increases in ownership, autonomous problem solving, connection to others, cross-team collaboration, and workers feeling competent and recognized. As a result, the plants also reported less employee turnover and a boost in productivity. This can be critical to giving workers a sense of purpose, recognition and dignity in their work during a time when plant owners are facing significant labor challenges, according to Ken Fisher, senior vice president of product management and solutions consulting at Redzone.  


Measuring water activity to increase production

METER Group, Pullman, Wash., offers a water activity meter, which enables companies to produce fresh product with an exact expiration date, allowing processors to know precisely when a product is going to mold or have a microbial growth event.

Without the knowledge of water activity, it is very difficult for companies to manage the pet food production process, and METER Group’s SKALA solution gives companies insight into what they cannot tell by measuring moisture alone, according to Takuya Ohki, METER Group’s executive vice president of food.

Ohki said data from all parts of the production process are aggregated and incorporated into the system, which then tells employees what to do at each step along the way.

“It’s helping new plants to have the eyes and ears to see what they need to be doing,” Ohki said.

The system automatically adjusts ovens, and the company is working on creating an algorithm to adjust extruders as well. Automating the cooler will be the next likely step after that, Ohki said.

“Getting good results from manually adjusting the temperature of a continuous oven is nearly impossible — there’s too much lag between QA readings and set point adjustments,” Ohki said. “The SKALA system knows what’s happening inside the dryer and automatically controls temperature and belt speed set points to produce consistent products.”

“SKALA’s closed-loop machine learning can become the brain that controls processors’ equipment,” said Takuya Ohki, METER Group.

Benefits from the water activity meter extend to saving labor, cost control, improving profitability and promoting sustainability. With more precise indicators of when a product will be finished, less product is wasted, thereby saving money while also reducing waste and energy use.  

“SKALA’s closed-loop machine learning can become the brain that controls processors’ equipment,” Ohki said. “Processors don’t need to invest in pricey, top-of-the-line new equipment, or find and train dozens of new employees to run it all. SKALA learns to deliver perfect products from any equipment, old or new.”

Additionally, as many processors are moving to using organic material, Ohki said SKALA helps them adjust to the different characteristics of these ingredients to ensure shelf stability.

Using SKALA, Primal Pet Group, Fairfield, Calif., was able to produce more product by reducing a 9-hour cook to an 8-hour cook, and the job of the production staff became easier as they no longer had to manually determine when to pull product.

Not only can plant management systems improve the quality of products, but they can also help bring workers’ ideas to fruition and act as a connection between managers and employees, all of which will be critical for pet food processors moving forward as the industry seeks solutions to labor challenges.

Read more about pet food and treat processing on our Operations page.