Blue Bell Creameries has been making delectable ice cream and frozen snack products since 1907. Now the company operates four manufacturing plants, 57 distribution centers, and a large fleet of delivery trucks. Known for its unique mixtures, Blue Bell ranks as one of the top three best-selling branded ice creams in the U.S.--despite being only available in 26-percent of the nation's supermarkets.
Blue Bell had been using Oracle E-Business Suite 11i environment for their existing automated data collection solution. Realizing that this version was difficult to modify and did not support off-line or batch modes, the company decided to upgrade to Release 12 to overcome these issues and improve overall functionality. But during the transition, the Blue Bell team discovered that Release 12 also created unexpected challenges, such as the fact that it now combined discrete and process manufacturing functions. That meant many of the shop floor transactions in Blue Bell's existing data collection system needed to be completely recreated since process manufacturing required complex inventory transactions as ingredients were received, used in batches or mixtures, put back into inventory and then reworked into final products.
Blue Bell not only set out to correct this inefficiency but viewed the upgrade as an opportunity to enhance their operational capabilities by bringing in a long-term solution that was easy to learn and use and could be implemented quickly. The solution would also have to be robust and flexible, capable of bridging related gaps in their current operations with the ability to be customized to meet evolving needs down the road.
Additional challenges included:
Led by Board Secretary and Controller Jim Kruse, the management team at Blue Bell began looking for a replacement for their existing automated data collection solution that would address the challenges associated with their ERP upgrade, multiple operating systems, delivery logistics, and solution scalability. After evaluating several potential alternatives, Blue Bell selected to customize RFgen Mobile Foundations for Oracle E-Business Suite - a powerful, flexible and cost-efficient solution for the challenges they faced.
The specially-tailored RFgen suite would enhance operations by implementing Advanced Data Collection (ADC) in Receiving, Inventory, Manufacturing, Quality and Fixed Assets. It would also replace the legacy ADC system as Blue Bell transitioned to the new release of Oracle e-Business Suite, bypassing potential interruptions in functionality or data collection capabilities and eliminating the need to recreate shop floor transactions going forward.
"We quickly realized RFgen's solution would not only solve our mobile batch requirements but would also provide real-time integration to our Oracle E-Business system to manage the shop floor transactions used in our plants," stated Kruse.
RFgen now ran on all of Blue Bell's operating systems for both PC and mobile field devices. The mobile devices offered multiple modes for mobile data collection, including real-time data collection with a thin client setup and high availability mode for batch transactions.
The ability to install RFgen and all of its transactions out of the box, test it, and get it running within two hours was a big deal for us.
- Vitalina Lisovaya, Program Analyst | Blue Bell Creameries
In real-time mode, database validation would be handled with SELECT statements against the Oracle e-Business Suite system, updating the Oracle system in real-time using Oracle APIs. When the Oracle system was down or offline, devices could switch to high availability mode, allowing operations and data collection to continue without loss or interruption. Handheld devices also no longer "dropped" data when the connection was temporarily unavailable since the devices stored the data until connectivity was restored.
By using the True Mobile or batch mode in RFgen for some Fixed Asset transactions, validation data could be stored on the mobile device for delivery drivers, which would later be uploaded to Oracle when those users returned to a branch or plant. RFgen and ADC technology would be added to enhance Fixed Asset tracking by integrating RFgen and ADC hardware with Oracle e-Business Suite. Oracle and Blue Bell's custom internal systems would then maintain locations, items and quantities.
"We were especially impressed with RFgen's open source suite of transactions and the rapid development architecture that allows our technical staff to make changes to RFgen transactions or build new applications as business needs arise," recalled Kruse. "That was a big selling point."
In addition to solving multiple problems, RFgen was easy to use and fast to set up. Program Analyst Vitalina Lisovaya was impressed with the speed of RFgen implementation: "The ability to install RFgen and all of its transactions out of the box, test it, and get it running within two hours was a big deal for us."
Built on open source code, RFgen is designed to empower customers to create and customize their own transactions in-house instead of paying for outside programming. Although Blue Bell did not elect to use all the standard features included in the RFgen suite, the fact that it was open source meant that Blue Bell had the option to implement these features as and when they were needed.
Not only had RFgen helped Blue Bell Creameries make a smooth transition to Oracle E-Business Suite Release 12 without losing functionality or data collection capabilities, the company remained highly satisfied with RFgen's reliability and performance. RFgen proved to be the right solution for Blue Bell's challenges, offering continued scalability and seamless integration across multiple operating systems.
Some of the other benefits Blue Bell experienced included:
Blue Bell employees now used RFgen to receive ingredient inputs from vendors on the load docks using handheld barcode scanners that quickly scan information from purchase orders. On the inventory and production side of the house, the scanners were being used to do cycle counts, keep accurate inventory in real time and track inputs going into product batches.
"RFgen handles our inputs, outputs, returns and also some quality control transactions on the handheld," stated Kruse. "All of the lots going into this system are tied together with quality information as well as receiving adjustments of inventory, inputs into batches, returns back to inventory and outputs that are basically a WIP completion or a finished intermediate item such as a mix, chocolate, or cookie." He went on to add: "There's no way we could collect so much data without the RFgen system."
There's no way we could collect so much data without the RFgen system.
- Jim Kruse, Board Secretary and Controller | Blue Bell Creameries
RFgen enabled Blue Bell to efficiently track and trace ingredients and finished food products through their supply chain within two hours to comply with Federal food safety regulations. When auditors for customers or governmental agencies perform an audit, manufacturers like Blue Bell need a mobile solution to collect lot numbers of all the different items and ingredients they used and where they were going. "There's no way we could collect so much data without the RFgen system," insisted Kruse. In fact, the RFgen solution helped mitigate the damage from a 2016 recall by supporting Blue Bell's management of ingredients that are mixed into their ice cream.
RFgen solved one of Blue Bell's most frustrating issues with their previous vendor: data drops. The prior solution had a bad habit of dropping its connection with handheld devices--and taking with it the several pallets of data warehouse employees had collected.
"That would happen especially with the receiving guys on the dock," remembered Cost Control Analyst Clint Eilers. "The inventory guys would then have to go and find the pallets that they had already stored in the racks." Warehouse employees then had to re-scan all the items on the pallets and hope the connection wasn't dropped a second time.
Kruse added: "With RFgen, the handheld holds the information until you get to a better connection, then you can proceed with the transaction or your data collection. The guys are really enjoying that!"
RFgen implemented a mobile fixed asset solution to address one of Blue Bell's complex logistical delivery challenges. Through the combined use of ADC technology, RFgen and mobile devices, RFgen enabled Blue Bell to upgrade their manual paper-based process to a digital paperless process. This solution not only provided cost savings and preserved countless trees through reduced paper use, but RFgen's solution also helped the customer's unique delivery system of over 800 truck drivers manage Blue Bell fixed assets located at thousands of branch and customer sites with drastically greater efficiency and accuracy. Drivers no longer performed manual calculations or modifications to paper-based forms, minimizing time delays from miscounts and mistakes produced by human error since such issues could now be immediately identified rather than later during the receiving and/or transfer process.
Previously, Blue Bell's vendor required one to two weeks to create a new transaction. But because RFgen is built on open source code, Blue Bell's in-house development team could now customize transactions and workflows for themselves for a fraction of the time and cost of their previous vendor.
"The RFgen system is quicker and much more flexible," said Kruse. "It enables us to be very effective and efficient." And with the added RFgen Maintenance Plan, "[It] gives us the peace of mind of knowing that our software will continually be enhanced to meet our current and future needs," added Kruse.
RFgen's user-friendly interface made the system easy to learn and create the complex transactions required in food manufacturing processes. Training support was provided to ensure maximum effectiveness of the RFgen product.
"Training our users was very easy," stated Eilers, who conducted user training for employees working in Blue Bell's four plants. "The functionality was similar to our prior solution, but it was even simpler to learn the user interface," he said. The training was simple enough that after presenting live training at the first plant, he trained employees at the other three plants via webinar.
"We have 12,000 freezer cabinets that are located all over in retail stores, schools and hospitals. The challenge is that we don't have connectivity everywhere. We need to have a batch transaction in order to conduct the cycle count," explains Kruse.
Other possible improvements include exploring how the high availability batch mode can be used to improve route accounting for the company's delivery of ice cream products to supermarkets and convenience stores. Kruse is also considering introducing touch screen devices into their environment.
Laughing, Lisovaya adds: "We have a lot of ideas for RFgen based on its scalability. I have a feeling it's never going to end!"