When harvesting sugar cane, you have 8 hours to bring in the harvest after burning the cane to remove the outer leaves. Any longer and the yield starts to fall. That's one of the reasons why leading producer US Sugar rolled out a mobile app to field workers last year to report equipment problems and get them fixed as quickly as possible. Reducing time to fix has a significant impact on the bottom line.
The app has been well received by farm managers. In the past, reporting a problem meant walking back across the field to their vehicle, opening up a laptop, getting a network connection and then filling in a report. If they're managing fires, they might not get a chance to leave the field for some time. Now they just report the issue on the spot using a cellphone.
The application minimizes the data that needs to be entered. It's linked into the equipment asset records held in the core SAP system, so once the asset number goes in, the form is automatically populated with full details of the item. It's easy to take a picture and upload an image of the problem if needed. Since the user has to sign into the application to open it, their details are already logged. All of this makes it much faster to report an issue. The timeliness of notifications has been the biggest impact of introducing the mobile app, says Austin Chapman, SAP ERP Team Lead:
It's taking it from a batch management process to a real-time process. Every single day that tractor is down, we're losing money.
From its quarter million acres of farm land in the center of southern Florida, US Sugar accounts for 10% of all the sugar produced each year in the United States. It's also one of Florida's leading producers of orange juice and sweetcorn.
During the harvesting season, it hauls around 1,000 rail cars of raw cane to the mill for processing every day, producing an annual total of 8.5 million tons of sugar. Any interruption to that process quickly starts costing money, so prompt maintenance has a quantifiable impact on profitability.
Having the information posted instantly to the system means that area managers can take immediate decisions on what actions to take, and thus plan resources more easily. Once in the SAP system, a work order is created. Farm managers can see what issues are in progress and also gets a notification once the work is completed.
Rather than undergoing an expensive SAP upgrade to enable the mobile app, US Sugar decided to go mobile using a third-party add-on to its ECC 6.0 ERP platform. The clincher in deciding on Neptune Software's mobile offering was its ability to support offline use. While there's good network coverage across US Sugar's estate, it's not always dependable. Therefore the ability to still use the app offline was important.
Once the decision had been made, US Sugar took just one month to get a pilot ready for testing. That included some elements of customization — or 'sugarization' as the US Sugar team prefer to call it. After another three weeks' fine tuning, the app rolled out to the first 50 users. Soon there was a clamor from others asking to be included as the benefits started to be seen, and this has continued to drive wider adoption.
Future enhancements in the works include GPS capture, which will automatically add the location when an issue is logged. The app will also be rolled out to the company's manufacturing sites, starting with the citrus plant.
The scale of US Sugar's operations brings home the real-world impact of a simple software tool. By putting the SAP maintenance data in the hands of field workers on their mobile phones, the company has cut valuable hours and minutes off the time taken to act on equipment issues in the field. Multiplied over 15,000 separate functional locations and daily running costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the bottom-line impact of that time saved quickly mounts up.
[Updated the original copy to correct the figures for daily and annual production].