Ardent Mills uses Microsoft Power Platform to enable a paperless state-of-the-art mill
Ardent Mills is a premier flour-milling and ingredient company that cultivates the future of plant-based solutions to help their customers and communities thrive. They are committed to transforming how the world is nourished. They operate in more than 40 locations and specialize in flour, quinoa, pulses, and organic & gluten-free products to drive emerging nutrition and innovation across plant-based ingredients. Their holistic portfolio empowers the company to meet the complex needs of customers today while focusing on the growing needs of tomorrow’s consumer. Deeply rooted in communities throughout North America, Ardent Mills operates in the United States, including Puerto Rico, and Canada, with company headquarters in Denver, Colorado. They employ more than 100 certified millers and support thousands of local jobs that contribute billions of dollars to local economies – helping people, customers, and families everywhere flourish. Ardent Mills is also committed to corporate social responsibility, the quality of life and health for economy, and practice environmental sustainability across their four focus areas of Agriculture, Transportation & Logistics, Procurement, and Operations.
To stay current with the increase in operations and production across their plants in several different countries, their processes needed to be efficient and supported by the technological capabilities available today. This was a priority to ensure their cross-country teams were operating at optimal capacity.
In this article, we shine the spotlight on a long-time employee, Deborah Romero-Reinig, who used Power Apps and Power Platform to improve processes at Ardent Mills and establish reporting capabilities across their plants. Deborah started her Power Apps journey with SharePoint as the primary data source. In preparation towards building a paperless state-of-the-art-mill, she and the team are transitioning to Dataverse as the underlying data platform for all their apps. Following on from Deborah’s success with Power Platform, an internal community of citizen developers has emerged at Ardent Mills which has led to further innovation and an increase in efficiency through low-code digital solutions.
|Deborah Romero-Reinig started her career at Ardent Mills as a quality manager in the flour milling team. When the company needed an ERP system, they approached Deborah to be the data lead for quality control of their operations and for managing data governance. Her deep knowledge of business operations led to her being approached again, this time as a business analyst. Through her experience working in the plants, she drew on the inefficiencies of several processes and worked towards improving them across the company’s network of facilities. As a citizen developer with no prior experience in programming or solution design, Deborah built over 6 low code solutions – most of which are used every day in Ardent Mills’ locations spanning across the United States and Canada.
Deborah is now a Business Architect in the IT team at Ardent Mills. She continues to build solutions and helps enable other citizen developers. She also helps prioritize which solutions to digitize using Microsoft Power Platform.
Business scenario and challenge
Ardent Mills runs a companywide check sample program to ensure their equipment is calibrated to support making consistent, high-quality flour. Previously, quality managers used to type this data into Excel forms and email them to Deborah. She then compiled them into a master spreadsheet to do the calculations. This process was time consuming and inefficient for team productivity.
Power Platform Solution – Cross Check app
Deborah began to do some research on what tools exist to help improve the process and stumbled across Power Apps. After watching some online videos and learning more about Power Apps, Deborah recognized the benefits it could have on this time intensive process. Deborah created her first app, known as “Cross Check,” which allows quality managers and lab technicians from the different plants to enter the data directly in the app. This app is currently live across 35 plants and is used monthly by over 70 quality managers, lab technicians, and others, with approximately 170 checks each month.
The Cross Check app used to test the quality of the flour produced
The data collected through the app is stored in SharePoint Online lists. This was a game changer for Deborah as it not only reduced the time spent in reviewing the quality control results from the plants, but also enabled employees to enter the required data within the app rather than a form. Deborah presented this to her business partners, and they too saw the value of the solution and started to look at more capabilities for the app to handle.
Deborah then started to consider reporting on the data collected from the plants. Power BI was a natural fit due to its built-in connection with SharePoint. Power BI reports display the results of the tests. They can be filtered by sample type, month and attributes tested for, such as ash or moisture. The previous Excel calculations are now performed in the Power BI reports, as well. The end-to-end solution using Power Apps, SharePoint and Power BI has enabled the quality managers to have better insights to products produced across their plants.
Power BI report that provides insights into the cross-check results
Summary of impact
The Cross Check app has reduced the time spent on the quality control process. Power Apps helps manage the quality of the data and prevents users from submitting the form unless all data is provided. This helped alleviate some pain points with management of the forms.
Deborah previously spent more time making sure the form was filled out correctly than checking the actual data. Now, the app automatically checks that forms have been filled out correctly.
If plants are late on submitting their forms, Deborah no longer needs to manually update the reports, as Power BI automatically refreshes the data in the background with no human intervention needed.
The up-to-date Power BI reports provide insights into the testing results each month across their plants and over time provide analytics into the history of their quality control.
“You don’t have that stress anymore. The data should be correct the first time because it’s the way the form has been built.”
– Deborah Romero-Reinig, Business Architect, Ardent Mills
Since building her first app in 2017, Deborah’s Power Apps learning has advanced, enabling her to enhance and simplify the Cross Check app and develop several more apps. The Cross Check app took Deborah a month to build, whereas now through time and experience she is able to build apps within a week. To date, four of Deborah’s apps are live and used across Ardent Mills plants in the United States and Canada, ranging anywhere from 10 to over 70 users in each plant. Two additional apps are also ready to be deployed in production once portable devices are available for the team members in the new facility. Below are couple examples of additional apps built by Deborah.
Bulk Carrier Feedback
An app known as “Bulk Carrier Feedback,” was developed for the transportation department where logistics coordinators rate the service received from their transportation vendors. This is required to be filled out each month and a reminder email is sent using Power Automate cloud flows. This feedback is valuable in strengthening their relationships with their carrier partners and allows for open and data driven conversations. The data is surfaced onto Power BI reports for further visibility on the ratings of the transportation vendors.
The transportation department rate the service of transportation vendors in the Bulk Carrier Feedback app
When a vehicle arrives at a site to be loaded with products, loaders at the plants must inspect the vehicle for food safety, operation safety or any other issues. If the vehicle is clean, and can be safely loaded and sealed, then the vehicle is loaded. If the vehicle does not meet the requirements, the vehicle is rejected, and an Ardent Mills manager needs to be notified.
Deborah built an app known as “Vehicle Inspection” to help manage this process in real-time. Truck drivers sign their initials in the app in acknowledgement of inspections performed. If the truck is rejected, the app immediately sends an email notification to the manager. This saves team members from having to remember to inform the required personnel and managers. Additionally, historic vehicle inspection data is now stored and can be reviewed as needed.
Truck drivers inspect vehicles and managers are notified of the inspection
Inspiring other citizen developers
Despite not having a traditional software development background, Deborah built impactful solutions and went on to share her knowledge with the broader team. Inspired by Deborah’s low-code apps, an internal group of citizen developers formed who, like Deborah, are developing low code solutions with Power Apps and Power BI for their departments or plants. They meet twice a week to provide updates, support each other, and prioritize development of apps.
Ardent Mills currently has a combination of existing enterprise applications and Power Platform solutions. The existing applications include Asset Management for Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Management and a ‘homegrown’ system used for scheduling and operations. If there are gaps found in these applications, such as missing functionality or insufficient capture of data, Power Apps is used to fill these gaps. Deborah meets with the team regularly to review their outstanding needs and helps identify when to develop a Power Apps solution and when to add functionality to their existing enterprise applications.
One example is magnet checks associated to equipment. Magnet checks need to be performed daily, sometimes in every shift, and the frequency of checks is important for operations. Even though Asset Management has some capabilities in quality control, it does not have the ability to capture inspections. This type of process and collection of data can be developed in Power Apps.
Advancing app development with Dataverse and AI Builder
Meet the team
The team that is digitizing the Port Redwing facility
Preparing for the State-of-the-Art Port Redwing Facility
Ardent Mills is building a brand new, state-of-the-art flour mill in Port Redwing, Florida with various technological advances and the ability to grow with their customers. The mill also aims to minimize the use of paper. SharePoint has been the primary data source but with the Port Redwing flour mill underway, and the continued growth of data, Deborah and her team are in progress of shifting to Dataverse. Dataverse will be the data source for new forms being developing for the project which will help Ardent Mills reach their goal of minimizing paper. There are around 100 forms that Deborah and the team want to build as tablet-ready apps so that employees can capture information and complete processes digitally while at the flour mill instead of being desk bound.
Additionally, as their data grows and more apps are developed, Dataverse is seen as being more sustainable for housing their information in the long term due to its feature rich capabilities of role-based security and quick forms. Deborah and her team have already migrated some of the data in the original SharePoint lists to Dataverse with two apps ready to go-live and four other apps still in testing.
One of the apps being built in the new Dataverse is for Pre-Job Hazard Analysis (PJHA) which can range from 20 to 75 users. Depending on the size of the plant, each team member is required to complete at least one analysis per month. The PJHA form is typically completed by all team members and a manager, or a safety leader, enters how many forms they received for that month. The new app will allow for a quick count of how many PJHA’s were performed as well as the ability to see any trends to any safety concerns found during discussions when the PJHA was performed.
Going further with Lobe and AI Builder
Ardent Mills is also exploring the possibility of using Power Platform in their baking lab. After learning about Lobe and AI Builder integration at a webinar session hosted by Microsoft, Deborah recognized the potential impact it can have for their bread making and grain processes.
Exploring the capabilities of Lobe and AI Builder in their baking lab
Deborah is now actively learning about Lobe and AI Builder capabilities and looking forward to using these in the future to enhance quality control and automation capabilities for their bread lines. As a free, easy-to-use app, Lobe will enable Deborah and the Ardent Mills team to build image classification models on their own. They will simply capture images and label them, and Lobe will automatically train a custom machine learning model. The team is currently progressing with a pilot to evaluate using Lobe with AI Builder to train the model in several areas in their baking lab – bread baking and grain grading to detect bread or grains that need to be flagged for further evaluation. Deborah is interested in understanding how easy it is to train the model and the level of accuracy.
The following is a representation of a common architecture across all the apps developed to date by Deborah and other citizen developers. Power Apps is the primary front-end interface with Power BI used for reporting to provide insights into their data. SharePoint Online was the original data source and with the new state-of-the-art mill underway, Deborah and her team are transitioning to Dataverse which will be the long term data solution for all their apps and Power BI reports.
Solution architecture of the Cross Check app with plans to incorporate Dataverse
Using this common architecture has resulted in solutions that help with productivity and made their business processes more efficient across 35+ facilities in North America.
Deborah plans to continue working on establishing Dataverse as the core data source for their apps and reports and explore the possibilities with Lobe and AI Builder for quality control in their bread lines. Deborah is also looking into establishing a Power Platform Centre of Excellence as a means of governance for their continued growth in apps built by citizen developers. Deborah and the other citizen developers plan on continuing to add Power Automate cloud flows to their apps for scenarios such as sending a notification when a sifter in their mills need to be inspected and to ensure they’re operating at the required frequency.
“We’re in the process of building more apps with a long list of about 100 different forms. I’m working on the back end as I bring on more citizen developers.”
– Deborah Romero-Reinig, Business Architect, Ardent Mills
Deborah’s advice to other organizations is to embrace low-code and Microsoft Power Platform since it enables subject matter experts in the organization who are deeply familiar with their business processes to create sustainable solutions on their own.