Big data, cloud computing will be industry norms

A cloud is spreading over the produce processing industry.

Just in time.

Experts say that produce processors – everyone from farmers to food manufacturers and those in between – are increasingly seeing the benefits of coming into the 21st century when it comes to information technology. That means embracing cloud computing – moving away from in-house servers to utilizing the Internet and its world of servers and applications. It means seeing the benefits of mining big data, or the vast universe of information available digitally – a universe that will only continue to grow as the adoption of cloud infrastructure, platforms and applications does.

And if some haven’t recognized those benefits yet, experts predict they will.

Field App on iPad and iPhone“The fresh produce industry is not leading-edge technology adapters,” said Ron Myers, executive vice president for Linkfresh North America in Ventura, California. “There’s always the downward pressure on margin: where do you invest your money – on the fresh-cut line or into these applications?”

However, Myers said that’s changing.

“We’re seeing the industry turn on like a light bulb … how to become a better company, become more profitable, how to be sure I’m protecting my brand,” he said.

And the way to get there, said Myers and others, is through technology. He cites Linkfresh’s own Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) application, specifically targeted at the fresh produce industry. It’s a packaged business management system for the fresh food sector based on the Microsoft Dynamics platform.

“There are ERP applications for all kinds of industries,” he said. “The difference in fresh is that there are some very specific requirements you don’t have when building bicycles, pens, space shuttles or widgets.”

Take forecasting demand in a fresh-cut operation.

“When we talk about demand forecasting, we talk in terms of harvest forecasting,” he said. “If I have apples that are going to go bad in a week, I better know. If a CEO says we’re a $20 million business today and we want to grow by X percent, they need to know how much raw material they’re going to need.”

The system also ties in components like produce traceability, supply chain management, transportation and logistics planning and accounting. In short, the idea is to transform previously disconnected solutions into one fully integrated system.

“We want to know from a granular level how effective we are as an organization – are we hitting our goals?” Myers said. “And business intelligence gives them that information.”

Cloudy with a Chance to Thrive

According to Myers, early adoption of cloud technology offers a variety of benefits.

“Number one, it allows a lower price point for technology – you’re not paying for a large software purchase up front, but paying as you go, similar to turning on a light switch and paying as you go,” he said.

It also makes the great big world of big data, which Myers describes as “business intelligence on steroids,” more accessible.

“It very much makes sense being able to have data at your fingertips for something happening anywhere in the world,” he said. “If you’re bringing in blueberries from Chile, it’s understanding where that product came from, what fertilizers and pesticides were used, how clean it may or may not be in terms of pure product. Cloud technology allows somebody in the United States to do a QA agronomy check.”

Myers says yield forecasting is another function that the cloud and big data will facilitate.

For a supplier like TOMRA, which provides sorting machinery for the fresh and processed food industries, among others, the cloud makes better optimization and integration of equipment and systems possible.

“The cloud platform will enable companies to go further compared to what they are used to,” said Bjorn Thumas, TOMRA director of market development/food in Belgium. “Items like preventive maintenance, continuous process optimization, designable line, integration of different processors, etc. will be easier to get optimized.

“All these aspects require data exchange.”

It happens in real time, and it goes both ways.

“Another aspect of this so-called data mining is that information related to best practices can be returned to the different separate components,” he said.

Down on the Farm

All produce processing functions begin with raw materials. Sunnyvale, California-based Trimble has a Connected Farm Field application that utilizes the cloud and hints at the possibilities ahead.

“Most farmers today are using some sort of computerized automated guidance – computerized planting, spraying, harvesting, different things,” said Mike Martinez, marketing director in Trimble’s agriculture division. “And all of that is collecting a bunch of data.”

With Connected Farm, he said, “you can do some easy data management with it, without having to be computer experts.”

“What producers are using that for is quick and efficient tracking of work performed and in real time decision making,” Martinez said.

It also offers a snapshot of what’s happening at any given moment, enabling management to shift direction and make decisions based on current information.

Pierre Rainville is director of sales for British Columbia-based Cengea Solutions, which is a Trimble company. He describes a customer that is a huge potato processor dealing with thousands of producers in operations around the world. A cloud-based system makes managing those contracts – which includes maintaining data on pricing, quality, size, acreage and more, and then factors into data on inventory, sales, profits – much more efficient.

“Then we have the piece for managing the growing season … what the farmers are spraying, what they are irrigating, what is the harvest – all of that good stuff,” he said. “And at harvest, that’s where you start managing inventory.”

Extend that to paying producers and shippers, tracking logistics of moving product from one step to the next, and the benefits of how it all works together become clear, he said.

“It’s the ability in a single database to accumulate a whole bunch of information that would allow you to make a better decision, basically,” Rainville said.

In the last two years, Martinez said, there’s been an “exponential ramp in development and usage” of the cloud.

“The technology and infrastructure is there and it’s now cheap enough to where companies can go in and develop really powerful systems that are able to be deployed across the Internet and work really rapidly and efficiently,” he said. “You can have really powerful functionality without the customer having to have a super-powerful computer and being computer experts.”

Looking Ahead

Thumas says it’s where the industry is heading.

“I believe today that we are only scratching the surface of the cloud,” he said. “In the years to come, a lot more potential will be unlocked.”

Without it, Rainville said, “you’ll be guessing at best.”

“You won’t be able to do without big data,” he said.

Getting there is going to take forward thinking, resources and expertise.

“Companies will have to look at the infrastructure to accommodate a cloud-based platform, but also look internally and externally at skilled resources on how to handle all this data and make sense out of it,” Thumas said. “You need the IT knowledge, but in combination, parallel with this, you need to understand … the correlation between the processes in order to optimize the entire process.”

And most surely, companies that want to succeed and grow will navigate their way through.

“The industry itself is looking at all of the things that a producer is needing to worry about in order to run his entire business,” Martinez said. “A farmer deals with bankers, land owners, input suppliers, transportation logistics, food processing, packaging – there are many other things that are part of the producers’ ecosystem and I think the industry is going to be looking at those other things.

“While there are individual solutions for all of those things today throughout the industry, I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to see a lot more consolidation – those functions coming together through the world of IT, and this cloud and data sharing.”

—  By Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer

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