At Laid-Back Ben & Jerry's, a Push for Stricter Quality Control


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By: SupplyChainBrain | August 20, 2013

Growth in sales was making it tougher for the popular maker of premium ice cream to keep tabs on its production line. New software to ensure manufacturing quality was needed.

The year was 1998. Manufacturing software vendor InfinityQS International Inc. was closing up its booth at a trade show when some representatives of Ben & Jerry’s dropped by. The popular counter-cultural maker of premium ice cream was at a crossroads. Rapid sales growth was making it difficult to enforce quality control on the production line. A paper-based system couldn’t track ingredients in an efficient manner. Hence the two hours that Ben & Jerry’s spent talking with InfinityQS while the vendor was breaking down the booth.

“They went away happy,” recalls Steve Wise, vice president of statistical methods with InfinityQS. “They gave us coupons for free ice cream.”

Founded in 1978 by a couple of ice-cream lovers in search of a career, Ben & Jerry’s had built a reputation for selling a high-quality product with unusual and varied ingredients. (Names like Phish Food, Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey showcased the founders’ innovative approach to both production and marketing.) Moreover, the company insisted on sourcing from organic producers, buying eggs from cage-free farms and cream from cows that weren’t treated with synthetic hormones.

The quasi-hippie vibe didn’t extend to the manufacturing line, where Ben & Jerry’s had to calculate precisely the levels of nuts, chocolate and other “inclusions” that made up their signature product.

“They needed to get better controls over their processes – to predict how much product they needed to bring in the door,” says Wise.

The operation had been getting by for 20 years on internal systems, all paper-based. The contents of each production run would be documented, and the information placed in three-ring binders. When it came to visualizing and analyzing the process, Excel spreadsheets were as sophisticated as the company got. Quality-assurance staff would make manual calculations in order to spot trends and generate reports.

Time for a Change
Clearly a change was needed – one that relied on automation, speed and accuracy. Following its serendipitous meeting with InfinityQS, Ben & Jerry’s adopted ProFicient, the vendor’s “enterprise quality hub.”

The tool employs statistical process controls (SPC) to gather data and integrate with terminals on the shop floor. Ben & Jerry’s uses it to track variability across multiple production lines on a real-time basis.

Each of those lines has a unique run capability. With the help of ProFicient, Ben & Jerry’s could create separate run charts, tied to Six Sigma quality measurements, to spot variations for each line. It could monitor and control the four main product attributes – weight, volume, air addition and inclusion amounts – during production. Quality-assurance personnel could follow up with any adjustments needed to keep product within tight specifications.

Visualization is a key aspect of the software. The company generates “visual cut-ups” of pints – graphically quartering the units – in order to ensure that they contain the right amount of inclusions. ProFicient can then identify the source of any variability.

InfinityQS wasn’t intimidated by the fact that Ben & Jerry’s was its first customer in the ice cream business. Focused on the industrial sector, the software vendor was just venturing into the world of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

But that sector had already prepared it for the strict controls that food producers must meet. “The rigidity of quality improvement is still more intense in pharma than it is in food,” says Wise.

Implementation of the software at Ben & Jerry’s followed the vendor’s standard, two-phase procedure. The first involves getting the data model up and running, usually on one or two lines. That typically takes about two weeks, says Wise.

In phase two, which can take another six months, the application is expanded to additional lines and adjustments are made in accordance with specific production requirements. The vendor and client draw up a “punch list” of tasks to enhance deployment, initiate employee training and get key suppliers signed up on the system.

Installation Begins
Ben & Jerry’s began by installing the software at one of its plants in Vermont, then extended it to a second facility in the state, as well as one in Henderson, Nev. That last location was added after 2000, when the company was acquired by consumer-products giant Unilever.

The biggest benefit to the ice-cream maker today is “instantaneous access to what’s going on,” says Wise. “It gives them a way to slice and dice data anyway they need.” The company can instantly answer questions about the content of a prior run, while uncovering any anomalies in the process.

Reports that used to take eight to 10 hours to run are now generated within seconds, according to InfinityQS. As a result, quality-assurance staff spends significantly less time calculating critical data. The consequent reduction in paper allows managers to focus on improving production efficiency.

“By utilizing InfinityQS’s ProFicient to implement SPC and Six Sigma best practices across our manufacturing processes, Ben & Jerry’s will continue to identify opportunities for cost savings and ensure the highest level of customer satisfaction,” comments quality supervisor Nina King. “The result is the perfect pint for our customers.”

Just getting access to the right data had been one of Ben & Jerry’s biggest challenges. Inclusions are especially tricky to monitor and control. “You can’t just measure dry walnuts as they’re being dropped into the line and get an idea of how much made it into a half-gallon container,” says Wise.

Ben & Jerry’s must be careful to ration out the right amount of contents for each unit. A single barrel of swirl can cost up to $800. Significant cost savings can be realized by controlling variations in the amount of raw materials.

The future could see Ben & Jerry’s accessing InfinityQS’s software in the cloud. According to Wise, that would bring the company closer to its supplier base, providing the ability to foresee issues before they occur. At the moment, it’s forced to rely on certificates of compliance from suppliers.

The latest version of the tool, developed by InfinityQS in partnership with Kraft Foods, includes Dynamic Scheduler which could automate sanitation and safety procedures prior to the start-up of a production line. “They could go through clipboard checks as part of this quality hub,” says Wise.

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