Talking with Jim Leonauskas, Director of Information Technology at Doumak, The American Marshmallow Company


April 18, 2024


Just about every industry is tech-centric nowadays, which means IT plays an enormous and ever-expanding role in keeping operations running smoothly—from manufacturing processes to cybersecurity strategies. And though it doesn’t get nearly the plaudits of sales or R&D, IT is vital to the economic health of any organization. That’s certainly true at Doumak, The American Marshmallow Company located in Elk Grove Village, Illinois that began its journey in 1921. We recently spoke with Jim Leonauskas, Doumak’s Director of Information Technology, about IT’s impact on his company.

Q: What are the most pressing technology-related challenges that the food and beverage manufacturing industry is currently facing, and how is your organization preparing to tackle them?

A: Scalability and reliability of the IT infrastructure and how it interfaces with manufacturing is critical. Because there are constant changes along the manufacturing line—it’s an evolving process that happens in bursts—we always have to make sure that we’re prepared for these bursts on the IT side. Anytime anything is installed along the manufacturing line that interfaces with the network and the infrastructure, you have to make sure you have the network capacity for it. Switches, switch port capacity, making sure your switches aren’t fully populated when someone is running a new project that’s going to have to connect 30 new sensors to the manufacturing line – things like that.

Reliability is just as important. You need to completely avoid any unplanned manufacturing line stops, any sort of machine breakage. The motor goes out, the belt breaks, or maybe there’s a connectivity issue with some of the PLCs on the network. So, you put as much resiliency in place with redundant systems to ensure things are running smoothly and optimally. Unplanned line stops equate to lost revenue. We can’t have that! So, you have to have vendors and staff in place to address issues if they arise—and try to prevent them all together.


Q: How are you leveraging Industry 4.0 technologies such as IoT, predictive maintenance, data analytics, robotics, and AI to minimize downtime, accelerate production, and increase efficiency?

A: We use a SaaS product called Redzone that provides real-time information along the manufacturing line. We have Redzone sensors that interface with our PLCs so we can see live data on iPads that are throughout our factories and in our headquarters so upper management can see what’s going on in real-time.

In addition to Redzone, we’ve established benchmarks for optimizing manufacturing speeds for our products. In a marshmallow factory, once things are all mixed up in the kettle—we call it cream, which is basically really hot marshmallow goo that runs through a manifold—into long tubes—a big knife then goes up and down and cuts the cream. That’s one of the things we can measure with our real-time information from Redzone. We can see how many strokes that knife is making per minute. And if it goes from green to red and stops, you can immediately see that part of your manufacturing line that has gone down, so you can keep operating further down the line while you address something elsewhere in the line and keep the process moving. With all the components involved in manufacturing, it’s hard to know where to put sensors. We have to strike a balance between how much data we can take in and how much we really need to know to get the information that we’re looking for.

When it comes to IoT, the main component along the manufacturing line is live data that’s stored in the cloud. We can access that information at any point in time, crunch the numbers, run reports, charts, bar graphs, etc. Then management can make decisions for capacity planning based on real-time numbers.

Q: How is the tech you use different for your industry vs. others?

 A: The more things you throw into the mix tech-wise, the more people you need to run them. We haven’t hit that point yet. Management is satisfied with what we’re doing. Not to say that we can’t always modify and change. Technology is always evolving. There’s always new software coming out that can help. Redzone for instance, has really dialed things in for us so we can optimize run conditions and speeds.

Q: How are you ensuring that your IT strategies align with the broader business goals of the organization? And what measures are in place to communicate the value created by IT initiatives?

A; IT’s value comes into focus when we’re brought in to help roll out new technologies and processes and to make sure everything works. IT is not involved with business decisions in terms of sales and capacity planning. But we’re key in providing the tools for analysis and decision-making.

Q: What strategies are you implementing to overcome labor shortages within your industry? How are you attracting and retaining workers?

A: I’ve been with the company for nine years, and we’ve been really stable in terms of size and capacity. At the end of last year, we put in a new manufacturing line, but that doesn’t really translate to more IT headcount. The only time anyone gets replaced or a new hire comes on is when someone leaves. And we’ve been fortunate in that regard. But we only make one product—marshmallows—compared to manufacturers that might produce 50 or 100 different products. In those scenarios, certain products spike in popularity and then fall off, which means a reduction in headcount and empty manufacturing line capacity that’s filled by something else. Having only one product simplifies things.

Q: Are there any other technologies that you plan to leverage this year or next?

A: Probably not this year, because the cost for VMWare licenses has really risen. So that slows any maturing of our environment to integrate something like AI. But AI is definitely something that is on the radar. We would be able to have more predictive analysis and more visibility in terms of supplies. But there’s also a supply chain problem related to that. If you have an AI component and you’re predicting what you’re going to need, there’s often a wild card to deal with due to supply chain issues. For instance, if you need sugar, you might find that your sugar supplier can no longer provide what you need—or their prices have gone way up. So, if they don’t have the product you need or are charging too much for it, you need a procedure in place that will automatically shuffle you over to another supplier.

Q: What steps is your organization taking to safeguard your data and business assets?

 It’s no longer the 1990s or early 2000s when you could just have antivirus and a firewall. We have a lot of things in place now, including a security specialist onsite, and have really matured our security posture over the years. Everything from password policies—requiring a specific length for characters in the password and complexity—and mandatory reset periods to endpoint protection on all of our devices. We also utilize Darktrace software for 24/7 monitoring of our infrastructure—anything from data exfiltration to people keeping an Excel file on the server with all names and passwords. We also do email security training exercises throughout the company as well as training videos.

Q: Cybersecurity requires investment. Is that something that you have to go to senior leadership for? And do they value cybersecurity enough to willingly make that investment, or do you need to educate them on why it’s valuable?

A: It’s a little bit of both. When we want to add new cybersecurity tools, there has to be value in terms of what it provides for the price we’re paying. Generally, if it’s a one-off cost, like a license renewal, we’re not going to roll that up to the CFO and President. But for something that will be an ongoing part of our infrastructure and IT operations, once it becomes a recurring operational cost, that will go to the CFO so we can budget for it. But with most IT operations, especially in manufacturing, we’re not necessarily driving revenue. We provide the infrastructure and the backbone for everything and make sure it works. So, it’s a balancing act.

Q: How is your organization navigating the complex vendor landscape to ensure the effective adoption of technology solutions in food and beverage manufacturing?

 A: There is no shortage of vendors to provide any number of solutions we may be looking for. It’s always a good idea to keep additional vendor options in your back pocket so you have something to fall back on if things with a current vendor do not work out.  We definitely want vendors we can trust—they provide the desired service or product and deliver on it promptly (within SLAs) when needed to keep our business running.  If a vendor cannot meet the desired service level, the option always exists to pull the alternate vendor card out of your back pocket.

Q: What are some of your interests outside of work?

I’m a big Chicago Bears fan, so I’m really excited about potentially getting Caleb Williams as our number one pick in the draft. I’m also an avid guitar player, and I have some nice equipment. I’ve been playing since high school, then I got married and had kids and put that on the shelf. About six or seven years ago, I picked it up again and just started playing. Playing guitar is my escape.

About Mindsight

Mindsight, a Chicagoland IT services provider, is an extension of your team.  Located in Downers Grove, IL we proudly serve customers across the area including Naperville, Oak Brook, Northbrook, and surrounding counties (Cook, Lake, Dupage, Will, Kane, and Grundy). Our culture is built on transparency and trust, and our team is made up of extraordinary people – the kinds of people you would hire. We have one of the largest expert-level engineering teams delivering the full spectrum of IT services and solutions, from cloud to infrastructure, collaboration to contact center. Our highly certified engineers and process-oriented excellence have certainly been key to our success. But what really sets us apart is our straightforward and honest approach to every conversation, whether it is for an emerging business or global enterprise. Our customers rely on our thought leadership, responsiveness, and dedication to solving their toughest technology challenges.

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