2013

Game Changer: IT Supported Quality Management Systems

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Simply put, coffee is complex. A countless number of processes involving temperatures, humidity, airflows, pressures, speeds, durations, color values, and more, need to be taken care of at the right time, anytime. For enduring success in the specialty coffee business, it is a must to understand these processes and where quality happens or lacks and how it can be upheld.

That is where up-and-coming coffee specific Quality Management (QM) systems come into play. They capture, display, and organize this vast jungle of information that contains the secret to outstanding and consistent coffee quality.

Any coffee roaster can tell his/her story about how tough it is to fully control coffee in its metamorphosis from a bag of green to becoming a delighting cup of coffee, rich of flavors and aromas. Let’s take the example of “Perfect Roasters,” a specialty coffee roastery. Perfect Roasters gets their green coffee through an importer, stores it at the rather humid harbors or in the roastery; batches of coffee are then roasted on demand on a small drum roaster that controls gas pressure, drum speed, and airflow. A digital temp display reads the bean temperature during roasting and the values are tracked in a spreadsheet. The roastery sells everything from light single origin filter roasts to darker blended espressos with very varying tastes and flavors. Every coffee is treated differently, but any coffee should eventually reach the same high quality standards in the cup.

Specialty coffee, in particular, demands for outstanding and consistent quality. By the very nature of coffee, raw materials change rapidly and frequently, and processes need to adjust quickly to keep up with these quality standards. The many different participants in coffee supply chains don’t really make this easier.

Only structured, real-time information that is responsive to all these variables can help to understand the quality critical processes at every stage. But that information would get lost immediately if it isn’t captured right where and when it occurs. A key point is to have relevant information in the right resolution at the time; timely enough to still influence the result. However, the load of information captured can even make things more complex, rather than easier, if it isn’t organized from the beginning.

The specialty coffee community is increasingly aware of this dynamic. That is why IT supported coffee quality management (QM) systems have been coming up on the horizon over the few years. These rather new technologies are specifically responsive to coffee’s peculiar processes and systematically reveal where quality can be improved. Basic solutions help to capture and structure this information and feed it back to the user. Some data is logged automatically such as roast temperature, while others are manually evaluated such as cupping results.
More integrated solutions go a step further. They bring the user into the next level of activity management. Beyond simply providing information, they pinpoint to where action has to be taken, and it helps users make better decisions more quickly based on new, real-time insights.

Supported by an integrated QM system, Perfect Roasters roastery integrates the roasting operation with green inventory, which can be kept either on site in a green room or in larger warehouses. Roast temperature, duration, roasting machine control adjustments (like gas or air flow), and bean color values can be measured automatically and tied back to the roast batch for later comparison and analysis. Added cupping scores and comments bring another vital dimension into play and complete the evaluation and learning cycle.

These variables support Perfect Roasters when deciding on how to roast which green coffee on which profile, how quickly to heat up during the roasting, which coffee to buy from where and how often, how to store it, how a certain supplier has developed over time, etc.
Everything is narrowed down to the most crucial bits and pieces. Real-time information allows Perfect Roasters to take immediate action where it is needed. Other data is formatted in the background for later analysis. Auto-consistency checks highlight outliers and decrease risk of having defected production going out for sales.

In the end, the roastery will be rewarded with a more consistent product quality and a better understanding of where quality happens or lacks. Processes can be linked to qualities at every stage, workflows are designed more efficiently, and business decisions are put on a solid information base. However, that is not the end of the story.

As in many other supply chains, many will agree, that also the future of specialty coffee lies within fast, real-time interaction between supply and processing. That is why some coffee QM systems offer to efficiently share quality, quantity, or traceability information with partners to create improved trade relationships.

With a fully integrated QM system, a producer or exporter will assess the quality of a coffee sample and can share it virtually with their potential buyers. On the buyers’ end, they receive the sample along with the sample quality assessment. The buyer runs a quality check in his lab to see if the supplier can deliver what is promised. If there is a match, perfect. With a mismatch, the buyer will feed back his opinion to the supplier. The full traceability provided by well-integrated QM systems throughout the supply chain, allows both parties to dig in and see what caused the problem; whether or not the mismatch came from different perceptions, different sample roasting, green coffee transport, storage, or any other potential error source. This creates common grounds for successful and enduring business relationships. The involved parties establish a transparent and complete information base for better decision making, will grow as they exchange this information with partners, and gain competitiveness in the more efficient supply chain.

To be fair, IT supported QM systems don’t make coffee less complex, but they provide solid tools to capture, organize, and analyze information. They also allowed Perfect Roasters to make the right decisions, at the right time, all for the sake of consistent coffee quality. Integrating the entire workflow, including roast monitoring, QC, inventory management, information sharing, etc. into an IT system may have the potential to overwhelm individuals, especially smaller, up-and-coming roasters. However, the benefits of QM systems greatly outweigh the temporary discomfort of change. Many IT systems provide entry-level services, and offer a modular structure for growth that responds to the need of both small and large businesses. Either will benefit from traceable and consistent coffee quality that makes the difference between a regular cup of coffee and an outstanding coffee that delights the customers’ senses over and over again.

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