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Contract Packager Scales Confidently with Tailor-Made ERP

As its major retailer customers expand their ranges of SKUs with increasingly complex orders, Enterprise CP is using Power Central’s ERP software to all but eliminate human error in packaging inventory management and planning.

Enterprise CP’s new ERP software adds transparency and accuracy to its inventory tracking and allows the copacker to forecast several months in advance.
Enterprise CP’s new ERP software adds transparency and accuracy to its inventory tracking and allows the copacker to forecast several months in advance.

Most CPGs would be thrilled to experience the rapid growth that Enterprise CP has, taking on several major grocer clients and outgrowing its first plant in less than a decade since the company’s founding. But as the Minnesota-based contract packager learned, successful scaling requires organizational capabilities that are up to the task.

Enterprise CP (ECP) processes and packages products for grocers including WalMart, Kroger, Aldi, and Save-A-Lot, as well as its own private label, Premier Pantry, which mostly goes to food banks like Feeding America. Its packaging portfolio includes dry mac and cheese, deluxe mac and cheese with liquid cheese pouches, and an array of pouch dinners, box dinners, and packaged stuffing.

It took a relatively short time to get to this point. “What started out as a smaller venture has had tremendous growth in the last four years,” says Sandi Hanson, materials manager for ECP.

That quick expansion came with some growing pains. Hanson says there weren’t systems in place to effectively manage inventory when she joined the company about four years ago, and she turned to spreadsheets to track operations.

“I was managing eight to 10 spreadsheets to try and keep track of everything,” Hanson says, “and as we continued to grow at such a rapid rate, it became very difficult to manage the upkeep of those spreadsheets.”

After juggling these proliferating documents became untenable, ECP turned to Power Central’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) software in September 2021.

The system runs on the Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central platform, with mobile apps purpose-built for the food packaging industry, using Power Apps, advanced Microsoft Cloud, and AI solutions. This combination of tools allows Power Central to further tailor the experience to ECP’s needs.

“[Vish Puttagunta, Power Central CEO] and I started talking about all these spreadsheets I had, and what kinds of products they have available to take the place of that,” explains Hanson.

Boosting transparency with Power Apps

Enterprise CP uses the Power Apps toolkit to digitalize inventory tracking, improving accuracy across operations.Enterprise CP uses the Power Apps toolkit to digitalize inventory tracking, improving accuracy across operations.ECP and Power Central’s partnership started with a transition to the Business Central platform and a new Power Apps toolkit to manage the warehouse in the present. This toolkit includes features to add transparency on both the receiving and finished goods sides.

That starts with a warehouse receipt app. When a new shipment of raw materials enters the facility, ECP uses the app to “receive them and print out license plates or labels for the inventory to be scanned and put away,” Hanson says.

Information on the receipt of those new raw materials then automatically feeds back into the Business Central platform’s ledger system.

An assembly pick app also simplifies the start of production, staging material on the line before packaging begins.

After packaging, the assembly reconcile and put-away app allows ECP to “reconcile the lines daily with what was produced,” Hanson explains. The app then produces labels and applies them to pallets, noting inventory used during operations. The pallets are then scanned and put into inventory.

The final app to wrap up operations is a shipment and bill-of-lading (BOL) app.

“We worked hard with [Vish Puttagunta] and his team to create the bill-of-lading how we wanted it to look, with the information that we needed to have on there, like the disclaimers that transportation companies need,” says Hanson. “And it allows us to track a pallet individually and know which shipment that particular pallet went out on.”

Power Central’s tight integrations between the Business Central platform and the Power Apps add flexibility, compared to other ERP systems running alongside third-party programs, explains Puttagunta. “ERPs are known for how unwieldy they are. You try to touch anything, you’re paying $400 an hour,” he says.

In contrast, the Microsoft platform and direct Power App integrations allow for relatively seamless customizations and updates. Says Puttagunta, “Maybe every once in a while, the assembly picks app guy cannot pick [materials] because of some security add-ons, but it gets resolved within five minutes, and it never really threatens operations.”

Each Power App runs its own useful function, tailored to the needs of each shop floor operator in receiving, production, and shipping. The ease of use of these apps significantly improves the accuracy of data being entered into the ERP software.

The system also helps ECP defend itself against potential customer back charges by taking the human element out of the equation. The company is connected to retailers through electronic data interchange (EDI) systems, removing the chance for any manual manipulation of information.

Workers scan labels on each pallet to upload data on inventory used for the system’s assembly reconcile and put-away app.Workers scan labels on each pallet to upload data on inventory used for the system’s assembly reconcile and put-away app.“Whatever’s on that purchase order, that’s what’s in the picks,” Hanson says. The process won’t move forward if ECP is short on a product, scans the incorrect product, or places anything that doesn’t belong in a particular purchase order.

“That gives us the confidence in knowing that we are shipping the correct product at the correct quantities,” Hanson says.

If back charges arise, ECP can reference the system to see the pallet in question and prove how many cases were on that pallet. “That’s our backup to disputing some of those types of charges,” Hanson says.

Looking ahead with the AI-powered Advanced Planning System

Further allowing ECP to ensure proper inventory for every customer is Power Central’s Advanced Planning System. The software allows Hanson to perform production and procurement planning as well as forecast inventory levels several months in advance.

The software lays out all upcoming sales, purchases, and forecasts and uses graph-based algorithms and the inventory tracking from the ERP to give a visual representation of any potential issues.

“I can look at my orders, the assemblies, my purchasing, and the stock levels all on one screen, and I have the capability to drill down to an individual line or an individual product,” says Hanson. “I can look at any given day, and I can see what that level is or where I’m going to have a problem.”

Each purchase order is color coded, allowing Hanson to see issues at a glance.

If every purchase order for the week is green, she can be sure no issues are ahead. “If I have something that’s orange, or turning red, then I know there’s something I need to take a look at. On the purchasing side, I could see if I missed a conformation, or if I have conformation that [packaging materials or ingredients] are coming in on that date,” Hanson says. “It’s simple, but it’s a great visual.”

This allows ECP to stay nimble in case of a change of plans on the retail customer side. The company can work with customer forecasts, but “sometimes you have a customer that runs 30% more than what their forecast is,” Hanson says. The Advanced Planning System allows her to better manage inventory in the event of those increases.

A customer can also provide its forecast for how many units of a product they anticipate needing in a timeframe, and Hanson can enter that forecast into the Advanced Planning System and create an assembly order for that number of cases.

“That shows me what raw materials I need to purchase, and if I put it in by month, it’ll show me that I need ‘X’ amount in whatever month it is,” Hanson says. “I can be pretty strategic with when I’m placing my orders and when I’m bringing my inventory in.”

The Advanced Planning System allows ECP to cover itself in case of any unforeseen variables as well. If unexpected circumstances arise, Hanson can pull up a timeframe, assess available raw materials, and adjust. “And that’s very visual as well, because I can see [adjustments in the system] as soon as I start making those moves,” she says. Any small change can lead to cascading effects both upstream and downstream, so being able to visualize these impacts, all in one interface, is important.

This system is designed with flexibility in mind to improve upon traditional ERP systems that Puttagunta says are traditionally “very hard coded.”

This approach stemmed from the days of COVID-19, accounting for when “there’s a lot of unknowns, you have to play a lot of what-if scenarios, and basically give the best intelligence in the most visually appealing way to the professionals that know what their domain is,” says Puttagunta.

Humming along, with some improvements to come

The tools Power Central has provided for ECP have added significant transparency and saved a lot of headaches for Hanson.

“When Vish and I first started talking, I sent him all my spreadsheets, and said ‘I need to get rid of these, and this is how I use them,’” Hanson says. “And so much of that translated to into what I see on my screen now, except it’s in one place. I’m not having to go from one spreadsheet to another, I can look at it on one screen.”

Since then, Power Central has been responsive with troubleshooting and frequent improvements. Hanson cites a time when “Vish and his crew came back on site and spent some good quality time in our warehouse. They were able to, by working directly with our material handlers and our coordinator, make improvements on existing apps or even develop new apps.”

Power Central is continuing to make “incremental improvements,” as ECP continues to grow, says Puttagunta. Features in development include adding location awareness for materials to ensure inventory is readily available in the correct facility, allowing for supplier substitutes, and even using generative AI for use cases like knowledge retrieval for workers.

ECP is satisfied with the capabilities and efficiency afforded by the system for now, but says Hanson, “as the technology changes and grows, we’re excited to hear about it and what it can bring to our table to make us more efficient.” PW

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