As discussions around Brexit rumble on, British businesses face a period of uncertainty over what it means for their staff, their supply chain, and future operations. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and all this indecision has led to a weaker pound which provides a golden opportunity for manufacturers to explore potential new markets, particularly those without an EU free trade agreement such as China and the US.

The food and drink industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK by far, but only one in five of these businesses export to other countries— leaving a real opportunity for expansion. According to the Food & Drink Federation, the sector launches over 8,000 new products each year—and each launch takes time and planning. There’s much more to consider than just shipping to a different country. A change of ingredients might be necessary. For example, some countries have strict regulations on the amount of caffeine that can be put into energy drinks. Companies may also need to change packaging or display nutritional information differently for each geography.

Whether manufacturers are launching a new product or a making a simple label change, there’s a big, complex process going on behind the scenes to collect the relevant data needed to take that product to market.

Competition in the food and drink sector is fierce and intensifying with small, authentic brands increasingly grabbing market share and capitalising quickly on shifting consumer tastes and buying behaviours. The soft drinks market is a great example of this with new brands, products, and variations hitting our shelves all the time. Less sugar, no sugar, creative flavours, and limited editions are constantly being launched to meet consumer demand and stay ahead of the competition.

In this environment, it’s critical to seize the first-to-market advantage—and that’s hard to do if large brands are hampered by slow, manual launch processes. A fact corroborated by our recent survey of manufacturing professionals that run their businesses on an SAP ERP system. We discovered that:

  • 75% are under pressure to speed up launches
  • 51% are hindered by slow, laborious manual launch processes
  • 28% want to cut launch cycles by more than a quarter

These manufacturers may have hundreds of product launches in the queue at any time, and each launch requires a high volume of data to be collected and input into their SAP system. Many are still collecting data via email and spreadsheets, then manually entering that data into SAP—a slow, error-prone process that can take 90 days or more.

We asked our survey respondents what they thought was the most impactful thing they could do to improve their launch processes. The number one answer was to automate data collection and data entry. No real surprise given the pressure people in the process are under to meet strict launch deadlines.

In our experience working with global manufacturers who digitise their launch processes, cycle times can be reduced by 50% or more, enabling them to get products to market weeks or even months faster.

And speed is not the only benefit of digitising launch processes. Gaining better visibility into launch status is also a key wishlist item, according to our survey and discussions with customers. In a manual world, project managers waste a lot of time contacting different teams to discover if they’ve supplied or approved data. Once digitised, project managers can get up to the minute status of each launch via dashboards and reports.

Faster, more efficient launch processes also reduce or remove the common practice of putting ‘placeholder’ data into the system. In the manual world, this happens because people don’t have the real data yet, but the process can’t move forward without data being entered. The problem is that often the placeholder data doesn’t get updated with the real data—causing all sorts of downstream problems—some of which, like inaccurate weights and measures, can even result in fines from retailers.

Manufacturers can further enhance product data quality by building data ‘guardrails’ into the web forms used to collect their SAP data. These guardrails ensure that business rules and processes are implemented.

British manufacturers have a great opportunity to expand overseas, but time to market will be key, especially for large manufacturers. Digitising product launch processes can drastically reduce launch cycles, enabling large brands to be more agile while taking advantage of their vast resources.