An increase in meal kit orders is GREAT… unless you can’t keep up fulfillment.
The Meal Kit industry was facing an unfurled scroll's worth of challenges before the pandemic, from a lack of customer retention to a saturated market with massive amounts of competition, when suddenly the entire planet was encouraged to stay indoors and avoid restaurants and grocery stores. Quarantines created the perfect opportunity for families to start cooking more since eating out was impossible. Meal kits went from a novelty or luxury to a staple of many households. Companies like Hello Fresh saw profits rise 90% at the beginning of 2020 vs. the same time in 2019. While the stockholders and owners were doing air high-fives over Zoom calls, the producers felt like they were trying to juggle tennis balls being shot out of a ball machine at full force.
If you're facing unprecedented meal kit orders, but your facility's output can't keep up, then it's time to identify and fix your problem areas. Here are some methods you can employ to get meal kits into customers' hands quickly and smoothly.
1. Review Your Data
You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken, so analyze your efficiency to determine what’s causing your production line to fall behind. You can start by looking at the six big losses benchmarks:
- Unplanned Stops: Equipment failure, breakage, anything unforeseen that grinds your production line to a halt and must be fixed or repaired
- Planned Stops: Cleaning, setup, adjustment, or maintenance to machines that require the production process to stop and accommodate
- Small Stops: Usually misfeeds, jams, or misalignments that must be consistently corrected, forcing machines to sit idle
- Slow Cycles: Speeds are slower than the manufacturer intended, usually because one or more of the machines is faulty or in need of repair, causing a bottleneck in the entire line
- Production Rejects: Parts or products that are defective and can’t be sold to the public
- Startup Rejects: Can be defective equipment parts or production material
Using the proper efficiency time of each process divided by actual process times will give you your true efficiency. For example, if you have three pieces of equipment in a row that should each complete a job in 30 seconds, then 1 minute 30 seconds would be the overall completion time that should be achieved, giving 100% efficiency. If the true times for the machines are 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 45 seconds, the overall time would be 2 minutes 15 seconds for efficiency between 69% and 70%.
2. Evaluate Your Processes
Perhaps some inefficiencies have crept in or are institutional, making them hard to see from an insider’s perspective. Here are some things to consider as you scrutinize your operation. You can even have experts in production line analysis come to your facility to identify problem areas for you.
- Ask Your Staff: Your employees have their hands on the machines every day. See what they have to say about the operation of your equipment and whether there’s any downtime or reduced speed anywhere.
- Optimize Flow: Sometimes when a new machine is brought in, it can be placed in the wrong section of the production line. A facility might even continue using an employee to manually load a machine when it could be fed automatically. Your machines might also be feeding each other incorrectly due to misalignment or poor setup.
- Reduce Redundant Redundancy: You might have two machines doing a similar job when one machine would do the process twice as quickly. For example, you might need to label the bottom and top of your meal kit box, but rather than run the box through a top labeler and then a separate machine for the bottom labeler. You could use a single machine to apply both labels at once.
- Consolidate Information: Your machines may have come from different manufacturers and have different instructions, but you should have an overall picture of how they feed each other. Create a single overarching process for your production line to help employees understand the big picture and not just their part of the process.
3. Identify and Remove Bottlenecks
When a product gets held up at one point in the line waiting for the next machine to catch up, something needs to change. You could have one of the following problems:
- Employee Error: The machine might not be at fault; it could be the result of an employee who’s not using it properly. Check to see your employees are running the machines as intended.
- Wrong Machines: You might have an unbelievably swift wrapping machine that can get vegetables in cellophane in the blink of an eye, only to start stacking up behind the leisurely machine that places those veggies in the box. Any machine that’s not pulling its weight needs to go or be investigated to see if its max potential is untapped.
- Unintended Consequences: Whenever you improve one process or replace a machine, you may be creating a problem further down the line once speed increases. Watch out for machines nearer to the end of the production line getting overloaded because issues at the beginning of the line are starting to get solved.
Let’s say you have an employee doing all the labeling by hand. They might be the fastest human ever to apply a label, but they will never be as quick or consistent as a machine. You could increase output speed by as much as 300% by switching over to a labeling machine. That employee could then be in charge of running the machine, putting in the label spools, making sure it’s running at peak speed, performing preventive maintenance, and fixing minor problems.
Machines also eliminate the inconsistency that happens when one task is performed by different people. One employee might work fast but sloppy, another neat but slow. Also, machines don’t call in sick. Having a spare machine or parts kit ensures your equipment can keep running without causing a slowdown in the line.
5. Train Employees
The word “automation” can make employees tremble because they see it as, “you’re about to be replaced.” Instead, your employees can see their work become far more satisfying and less tedious by moving the duties they do by hand over to machines. They are still responsible for their part of the process — it’s just that the tedious work is being done automatically. An automatic labeler needs to be operated by someone.
Most manufacturers will offer education and training to make sure their equipment is used to their full potential. Whether you need to train your employees once a new piece of equipment is installed or train new employees hired to run machines that have been on the floor for years, you need to be able to have experts come work with them closely.
6. Change Packaging Material
Streamline where you can. If you don’t need to be individually wrapping certain items, or you could consolidate down to one size of box for all meals, do it. Meal kits have often been accused of contributing to packaging waste, and in response, many meal kit makers are looking to reduce the amount of packaging they use. This has the side effects of speeding up packing, helping the environment, and reducing materials costs.
You may also be using complicated inserts that require precise folding. Go with form-fitted foam or plastic inserts. If you need to include cold gel or ice packs, make sure they are designed to fit your boxes precisely, so there’s no need to figure out how they’ll get stuffed in every time an order is filled. You can also reduce costs, increase speed, and eliminate waste by moving from taping your boxes to using hot glue. It also creates a cleaner look.
Utilizing the Right Equipment
Once you've identified your primary problems and are determined to fix them, you might find yourself needing to refine processes or shop for new equipment. Figuring out which machines need upgrading or replaced is the first step — the next is determining the best replacement with the highest ROI. If you think your labeling equipment may be one of the culprits, but you're not sure if it's worth the investment, you could miss out on some significant benefits. Here are some ways the right food labeler can help you save money and speed up your packaging line.