For over 100 years, The Coca-Cola Company has been bottling right here in Canada. Canadians love the taste of our beverages and know they can trust in the safety and quality behind any Coca-Cola product they pick up. Through the dedication of our associates in Quality Assurance, we’re able to ensure your next Coca-Cola Life, smartwater or Gold Peak will always be as refreshing as your last. For this edition of our #Dayinthelife series, I sat down with Jill Firman – one of our Quality Assurance Managers in Brampton – to talk about her role and why it’s so important.
Jill Firman has been in Quality Assurance for five years, two of them spent with Coca-Cola. As we start chatting, Jill tells me about the importance of attention to detail in a good Quality Assurance associate. If the stories of her childhood are anything to go by, she was born for this job. “I was that weird kid that played pretend paperwork,” Jill laughs. “I still remember how excited I was when we got our first computer. Unlike most kids who wanted computer games, I was thrilled by the promise of printing out my own forms to then fill in.”
The first thing Jill teaches me as we start talking is what Quality Assurance is… or rather what it isn’t. “Quality Control and Quality Assurance are two very different things,” Jill starts. “Quality Control is reactive; it’s about running a procedure and testing afterwards for quality problems. QA – our shorthand for Quality Assurance – on the other hand is proactive; you’re anticipating where issues can occur and preventing them from happening.” While regular testing is a part of QA, Jill and her team try to plan their processes carefully before hand so they don’t find anything when they do test.
At one point, I ask for an example of an area in production that QA plays a part. It turns out that QA has a hand in nearly every area of a bottling plant. “I’m in everybody’s business,” Jill jokes. “Quality Assurance isn’t just in the lab. Of course we handle batch making but we’re also down on the production floor making sure everything is to code and in the warehouse making sure good manufacturing practices are being followed.”
Jill isn’t exaggerating when she talks about how important QA is; if it wasn’t for her and her team there wouldn’t be much to do at our Brampton facility. “Without us, there are no batches,” says Jill. “We have a recipe for each beverage and we mix it together to deliver a great consumer experience.” Every beverage is different I learn, some are more involved than others. Some drinks may have over a dozen components and take a full eight hours to mix, while others are completely automated and run almost nonstop. Coca-Cola is so popular in fact, that it is always available at Brampton for filling into cans, bottles or BIBs (for fountain machines) which we test regularly for quality.
Once a batch is mixed, QA tests before the filling process begins. “Every hour a lab tech will run a barrage of tests,” Jill tells me. “We run a brix test, which is how we measure the sugar content and a CO2 concentration test so we ensure that the beverage has the right amount of fizziness.”
By this point, the beverage is ready to be packaged and QA shifts focus to ensuring cans and bottles are properly sealed, meet design specifications and the correct labels properly displayed. The days of a person sitting by a conveyor belt and visually inspecting packaging as it goes by are long gone, today cans and bottles are upside-down prior to filling and blasted with air to clear any potential debris. Gravity and air pressure – and an automated visual inspection by high-speed camera – ensure that beverage packaging is safe to fill. Every detail right down to the product labelling is carefully controlled. “Making sure our labels are correct may seem minor but it’s huge,” Jill points out. “People place an absolutely trust that what they read on the shelves is accurate and it is my job to make sure that trust is well placed.”
QA even has a role to play in distribution. “Quality assurance in the warehouse involves a few different things: from proper storage to keep our associates safe, to food safety to keep consumers safe,” Jill says. “Food safety in Brampton tends to focus on allergies because we distribute a lot of different products which may contain common allergens; for example we distribute Core Power which of course contains dairy, so we stack those together in the warehouse to avoid cross contamination.”
Of course, QA doesn’t stop once the beverage leaves our facility. “Lots of people I talk to assume my job is done once the truck leaves the plant,” Jill explains. “Ultimately QA doesn’t stop until that can or bottle ends up in the recycling. We have all sorts of procedures in place so we can continue to manage a product’s quality even after it ends up on store shelves and in a consumer’s home.” One tool in Jill’s arsenal is the date code you find on the side of our packaging. Using the date code information, QA Managers like Jill can tell which facility a beverage came from, the day and time it was packaged and even the line it was bottled or canned on in case they need to follow up. “I’ve taught my little nephews how to read the date codes on our packaging,” Jill smiles. “They’re convinced that the best drinks come from Aunt Jilly. Of course I have no clue where they ever got that idea.”
It is clear by the end of our conversation that Jill takes an enormous amount of pride in her work and brings to it a lot of passion and a healthy dose of humour. “With a portfolio of beverages as diverse as Coca-Cola’s we literally have people of all ages that enjoy our drinks,” Jill concludes. “I take this responsibility to them very personally because we are essentially charged with protecting the legacy of Coca-Cola. It took 130 years to earn the trust and admiration we have, but it can all go away a lot quicker if we don’t make quality our top priority.” As far as I’m concerned, that legacy couldn’t be in safer hands than Jill Firman’s.