COOL is here to stay, deal with it!

Freedom of speech is considered one of the greatest freedoms in the United States. Unfortunately people, especially lawyers, like to use this as an excuse to fight anything that people claim and do. Right or wrong does not really matter, and forget about intend the founding fathers had. It serves as the means to allow our children to buy R rated video games, by preventing legislation on sales limitations in retail stores.

One of the silliest things I lately saw was a speech from one of these lawyers. He is fighting in the name of the meat industry against the current COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) law, giving a positive outlook on the pending preliminary injunction, highlighting the importance of it etc. in front of 300 members of the meat industry at the NAMA management conference in Rancho Mirage.

This lawyer’s livelihood depends on fighting the lawsuit (not winning it). He tells a very uplifting motivational speech on the positive outlook of the pending decisions, while the industry audience listened to what they wanted to hear. He and his colleagues lost the preliminary injunction by now, they will lose the final decision as well. While the WTO will listen to the complaints of the meat industry again sometime this year or next, it most likely will not rule in the favor of the industry either.

There is no reason why anyone reasonable would prevent this law from happening:

Cool has passed and it is here to stay. The industry can spend as must as they want on lawyers and keep wasting their funds. Or, they could invest into standards and technologies that reduce the costs and the impact of this legislation. We have today software that deals with almost any regulatory burden. Traceability is not different. Advanced plant traceability systems like the one from CSB-System Int’l, Inc. allows tracing of attributes through the process accounting for comingling of these features to ensure accuracy and precision of these claims. Systems like Ftrace ensure that the information is available to consumers in a standardized and cost efficient manner. These systems make the burden of traceability not only bearable, they increase the profits for those that organize themselves efficient and effective. Think about it!




Posted in Meat, Software, Traceability | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MS Power BI – A great solution for small to midsize businesses

I fly a lot. I get easily bored. To deal with this personality disorder, I need to find ways to kill a lot of time with exciting stuff. One of the things I do is watching educational videos on technology. One of the technology companies that does probably the best job in this arena is Microsoft. Their full online training classes on Microsoft Virtual Academy are among the best training materials you can find – good, cheap and fairly thorough.

I spend a lot of time over the past few years watching videos and putting what I learned into action. I worked with quite a few customers with MS-PowerPivot and other MS-PowerBI tools that worked seamlessly in Excel for the Power user, but are hard to roll out. While MS-Powerpivot and the whole MS-PowerBI allows any individual to pretty much do with data whatever they can dream up, these solutions are not designed to be either shared or published.

Companies that would like to publish these kinds of reports face significant investments into MS-Sharepoint Servers and/or higher versions of SQL Server such as BI Edition or even Enterprise Edition. Even for smaller installations with 5 actual BI Users, you can quickly get to an investment of $20,000 or more just for the infrastructure, and still have no one to manage this.

Microsoft recognized this problem apparently, and added a cloud offering called ‘Power BI for Office 365′ to its product range. People that developed already report models using MS-PowerPivot, MS-PowerView and the rest of the MS-PowerBI suite can upload their spreadsheet. These spreadsheets can be linked to your on premise data and automatically (on schedule) refreshed, so that you have a cloud based BI Solution that basically runs in any browser and even has some specific apps for specific platforms. The solution does not seem really cheap at the first sight, depending on your particular situation, you can wind up with $52 per user and month. At this price though, you get the full MS-Office Suite that is required with all the on premise software as well as a hosted infrastructure for your BI needs. Data volumes of MS-PowerBI spreadsheets for Office 365 are limited to 250 MB, but this is actually quite a bit and most companies will be able to work around this limit without major limitations.

To top it all off, Microsoft did turn the cloud business up-side-down. At least in a certain sense. We all know that web applications are usually more limited to the solutions we get in desktop software or on premise installations. The Microsoft Power BI solution though has a ‘killer feature’ called “Natural Language Querying” which allows users to report on data in a very simple way, similar to a search engine. This feature is not available with any on premise solution yet and Microsoft has not yet decided whether or not they will roll it into the next release of MS-Sharepoint or make it available as a plug-in.

This basically means that a company can get a BI Solution for 5 users in place for about $250 per month/$3,000 a year that includes the software and infrastructure on the front end, and some of the software on the backend. This does not include the connectors to your ERP System and the configuration of the gateway. I think this is pretty reasonable – compared to the costs you would have for an on premise installation.




Posted in Reporting, Software | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Optimization in the meat industry

I ran across an interesting article in the National Provisioner about Optimization. While the article has a lot of truth to it, it is in a lot of ways incorrect and misleading. It starts already with the definition of Optimization as stated in the article. The optimal use of a resource or material is actually the optimum or the result of an optimization, but an optimization is the (mathematical) process of finding the best solution for a given problem.

We all like to optimize and it is always a key buzzword in management meetings and software presentations. There is nothing wrong with optimization, but the biggest challenge for optimization is a lot of times not the software, it is the definition of the problem itself. Let me illustrate this at an example: to get from San Diego to L.A., the fastest way will be a direct line of about 100 miles. This is true as long as I don’t through other constraints on the problem. If the constraint is ‘by car’, I need to use roads, which naturally means I cannot use the straight line, because no road like that exists (except in North Dakota). I can also add other goals to the optimization, such as ‘fastest’ instead of ‘shortest’ which will take a longer road to get to the destination quicker.

The challenge for any optimization is that you can only optimize one goal (fastest or shortest, you can artificially balance the two, but it would be still only one goal), based on a set of (unlimited) constraints and a set of (unlimited) possibilities. It easy can happen, that an optimization cannot be solved, because the constraints limit a possible solution outside of the possibilities (available solutions). This are the key principles of optimization software. Certain standard software algorithms like the Simplex Algorithm are well described and popular mathematical approaches for these problems. Software that has such an algorithm is sometimes referred to as ‘Optimization Engine’.

What you feed into these optimization engines is entirely up to you or your software vendor. Whether the optimization software looks into the rearview mirror or through the windscreen on what is coming, is entirely up to the problem definition. The key problem of inventory optimization is already in the term itself. If you optimize inventory, your options are already pretty limited. If something is in your inventory already, your options are: storing more, consuming, selling, using or worse like reworking or discarding. The best optimization options at this point are already eliminated, since you cannot optimize purchasing (spent less) or optimize manufacturing processes (make more effective use). In any case, you can define optimization problem that tell you best solutions for the future, such as what raw materials I should buy to make a certain sausage at least costs (least cost formulation software).

Another common issue is, that people try to optimize things that cannot sometimes be optimized, like costs. Costs for commodities are a given, and the only thing you may be able to optimize is profitability by optimizing sales prices in conjunction with your product mix. I normally flush these ideas out of food companies when I discuss reporting: If you have reports that do not lead to deterministic action, kill the report. Don’t even think about optimization.

The issue with optimization software is not that the software does not exist. The problem is the people and organizations that optimize the symptoms, not the underlying issues and problems.

Posted in Costing, Software | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Online is not always better than offline

I ran across an interesting article on one of my favorite meat media, TheMeatSite. It was about Tesco rolling out a new QR code in Thailand. You may now start asking plenty of questions, especially why a British retailer picks a 2nd world country to roll out a traceability system with detailed country of origin data. But the truth may be, that this development was only possible in areas where technology infrastructure is underdeveloped, Internet coverage in this instance.

We are running across QR codes in malls, stores and events asking us to check-in, fill out customer surveys and other things, the underlying principle in most cases is that the image of a QR code takes us to some website, and processes some information there. My gut tells me that probably 80% of QR codes fall into this category. The interesting piece of the article though is, that this application works entirely different.

A lot of people don’t know that, but you can put a lot of actual data content into these bar-codes that can be immediately processed without any lookup on the web or in some database. This is the way that barcodes used to work: You read these bars, they give you a number and a computer system looks up in a database what these numbers mean. This is essentially how any cash register works today. With QR codes, the barcode is already a little more intelligent, as you can actually store structured data in these barcodes, that can be immediately processed. You can encode calendar entries on invitations for events that you send to your customers, you can encode your address as a vcard on your business card, so that anyone can add it to their Address Book very quickly. In other words, you can process the data without being connected to a network, database or the internet. It just works.

Think about the potential that this technology offers. Space on food packaging has been an issue for as long as I can remember. Ingredients lists, Nutritional values and allergens. Minimum fonts regulations for packaging sizes, product description and supplemental product description (“water retained”, “water added”) clarifying the commercial value for the consumer. Credence values such as organic, locally grown, rbSt free, hormone free and others are gaining in importance for the consumer thus creating additional value for food processors. Eventually, we will not have enough space, something needs to give. Voluntary information, such as serving suggestions and recipes that we have today on the foods we purchase would need to go first. QR codes will provide an opportunity to put all of that into a code that can be read. You can easily put 2 fully written US-Letter pages in a QR code. You can even put a small image into the code (though here may be printing the actual image denser than the code).

I think that the solution that one of Europe’s leading grocery retail chain applies in Thailand has not only potential in the world where online is tough to have, it is actually an interesting solution approach to a lot of the challenges the food industry is facing everywhere.

Posted in Marketing, Meat, Retail, Traceability | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How Nintendo stole Christmas and Facebook saved it!

It is a drag of sorts to buy Christmas gifts for the kids every year, especially if they have so much. I was always against any toy gear whatsoever and I also did not see the point to get my kids the Nintendo 3DS they really liked so much. I was under the impression that these don’t do much more than the tablets and smartphones they already use, just with games that are way more expensive. With the Christmas pressure in full force and running out of options, we eventually crave in and got 3DS’s for both of them. We bought them in the US, wrapped them nicely and packed them into our bags for our trip to see the grandparents.

As long as I can remember, any electronic gadget designed for travel or mobile runs on any power plug in the world, due to a switchable power supply. Well, not so Nintendo. I don’t know what they were thinking, but come Christmas Eve, the kids opened their presents and were totally excited about their new gadgets. After playing for about 10 minutes each, the batteries ran empty, when we noticed that the power supply did not work in the country we were in. We also noticed that the stores were not opening for another 72 hours in the country we were in. I was mad.

When you are mad, you express yourself on Facebook or Twitter these days. Help was heard, and friend of mine, living no further than 3 miles from my current location offered me his power supply, as a loaner over the holidays, quite literally saving Christmas for our kids.

The story does not end there: The power supply he gave me was not original Nintendo, but a cheaper model that runs at half the costs of the original Nintendo part – with a switchable power supply that runs on 120V and 240V.

Merry Christmas!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment