A phone rings. A retailer is short on product and eager to let someone hear it. The questions and accusations start flying. Chaos sets in.

This is the baker’s distribution nightmare. But it can be avoided with today’s advanced distribution systems. Through automation, bakers can easily track shipment and delivery from beginning to end and, if there’s an issue, provide customers with process schedules and order fulfillment data.

Stay synced from the start

Production scheduling is critically linked to order fulfillment, especially when order volumes change day to day.

Eric VandenBerg, director of customer solutions and product marketing for Harvest Food Solutions, said one of the biggest challenges with fulfillment and production involves forecasting. It’s crucial to maintain proper inventory needed to prepare for upcoming sales, promos, new product releases, weather events and holidays.

In many cases, he said, bakers admit there is a constant battle between what sales wants and what production can make.

“This battle usually leads to over-or-under production,” Mr. VandenBerg said. “In either case, you never want to run out of ingredients or packaging. That means you pay for expedited shipments, or, worse, you stop production.”

Harvest Food Solutions offers an application tailored to bakers’ daily needs. Its scheduling model is designed to accommodate the high volume, batch processing and fast-paced environment that bakeries demand.

From the start, bakers should be able to focus on customer service. Marc Braun, president of Pcdata USA, said bakers compete in the market in part by staying agile when it comes to order fulfillment and customer service.

“That translates into their customers being able to order very late; up until they’re supposed to be getting their order, they can make pretty significant changes,” Mr. Braun explained.

Pick to Light is Pcdata’s solution for bakeries that fill complicated orders for a large range of delivery points and with any number of stock-keeping units. Pcdata also created technology that automatically scans picked orders as they get moved. If a product is loaded onto the wrong truck or into the incorrect freezer, an alarm sounds.

“Certainly, in the beginning when we upgrade bakeries, we hear these alarms go off all the time,” Mr. Braun said. “When they try to load a stack onto it, but that’s not the truck where it’s going. You can correct the situation and load it onto the right truck.”

Then, once a delivery truck is loaded, operators have an automatically generated load manifest with details about everything on that vehicle. He said this eliminates human transcription errors on paper, and operators know exactly what’s going where.

Close the loop

One key aspect to creating traceability across a bakery is scalable technology that works cooperatively with other parts of the operation. Each system in a bakery can run independently but still integrate, Mr. VandenBerg said.

Harvest Exchange, or HeX moves data, migrates legacy systems and interconnects systems into the Harvest Cloud network. Cloud applications provide access to data anytime, anyplace. Mr. VandenBerg explained that this technology opens the door to seamless and secure unification of an entire ecosystem of order to cash management, production resources and customer integration.

“Cloud also means your capital outlay is significantly reduced because you don’t need to purchase or maintain your own hardware,” he said. “This effectively removes the expense of maintaining a costly, ever-changing hardware environment.”

The last piece of the order fulfillment puzzle is the truck’s departure from the plant. Being able to track the product and shipping materials completes the traceability loop.

Pcdata offers a program called EQuipment Tracking (EQT), a proof of delivery and equipment tracking software. With it, bakers can scan the location where they’re dropping product off and scan the stacks on a truck that will reconcile those orders.

“If you’re trying to unload a stack that doesn’t belong at that location, it will warn you and say this is not the right place,” Mr. Braun said. It goes one step further, too. Once delivered and used, distributors need to pick up empties.

“If those numbers diverge, you know you’re losing material handling equipment, so it’s a safety net also for making sure you’re getting all your equipment back.”

Make it work for you

In the complex world of distribution, simplicity is the antidote to disorder. Modern automated distribution systems now have intuitive displays and work similarly to everyday smartphones.

No matter the size of the bakery, automation software can organize order fulfillment.

“I would say any company that has three or four people working distribution could benefit from technology,” he said. “That threshold is a lot lower than people think.”

Automated systems can work on any modern hardware, so bakers don’t have to worry about software working with their systems; they just need to work with distribution suppliers to determine which works best for their network.

“Today, you have the luxury of picking devices that can be used in your unique business environment,” Mr. VandenBerg said. “When talking to technology vendors, make sure the solutions you entertain have the capability to work on multiple devices and multiple platforms. The technology should enhance, not limit, your business.”

Mr. VandenBerg recommended asking how the technology can grow with the company. Baking is evolving and changing, so must the technology. Another critical component to ask about is training. He said bakers should make sure the distribution software supplier can provide the necessary training so operators and pickers can effectively use the system.

“Technology is only as good as its users,” Mr. VandenBerg said. “If your users can’t operate, understand or manage the technology, then they can’t use it.”

Through automation and the proper installment, bakers can calm the chaos of distribution and route accounting.