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08/03/2019 – Science & Technology / Innovation / IT / IIoT / Blockchain / Cobots

FOOD 4.0 – A Productivity Revolution


In 1987, Nobel prize-winner Robert Solow famously quipped that you could “see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”, referring to the slowdown in output growth across the US in the 1970s and ‘80s despite rapid development in the field of information technology (IT).


Yet fast-forward three decades, and it’s thanks to IT that enormous productivity gains are finally within our grasp, as a convergence of smart, interconnected technologies propel us into the much-vaunted Fourth Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the integration of associated technologies herald the dawn of ‘Industry 4.0’, unifying and exchanging information in real time across the value chain – from raw materials to product development, manufacturing, distribution, retail and beyond. And significant recent developments and uptake by major players throughout the F&B sector indicates fresh understanding of just what advantages lie ahead for early movers on numerous advancing and converging technologies.


Rise of the food cobots


Robots in factories have historically been unwieldy, dangerous, and confined to large industrial settings. Yet now, smaller collaborative robots (cobots) are overcoming traditional challenges at a lower price point. More than a decade since market leader Universal Robots sold the world’s first commercially unit, cobots are finally moving from hype to actual adoption, with the segment set to expand at an estimated 57% CAGR between now and 2023, according to Markets & Markets. For manufacturing industries like food, and particularly for SMEs, the benefits will be huge – not least in freeing up workers from repetitive, dangerous or unpleasant tasks in harsh environments. 


Machine-learning at the food mart


At the retail end, where keeping shelves stocked and products fresh is a delicate balancing act for grocers, machine learning (ML) is proving key to smarter fresh food replenishment. By training ML on historical datasets and input on promotions and store hours (alongside weather forecasts, public holidays, order quantity parameters, and other contextual information), the AI programme can analyse then gauge how much of each product to order and display – thus reducing spoilage and optimising availability. Michael Evans, MD of the Newport Group, claims businesses that implement machine learning in their replenishment workflows typically reduce their out-of-stock rates by up to 80%, along with up to 9% in gross-margin increases.


Blockchain boost for the food value chain


And across the entire sector – where food misrepresentation, adulteration, diversion and counterfeiting jeopardise consumer safety and collectively cost F&B players billions in lost revenues – blockchain promises to deliver unprecedented transparency and traceability. Carrefour has already integrated blockchain traceability for free-range chickens in Auvergne, France – enabling shoppers to track each stage of production via their smartphones – and by the year end, Europe's largest retailer will have expanded the technology to incorporate many other food items too. Walmart has announced that all fresh greens suppliers will be required by January 2019 to join its blockchain, while food giants Nestle and Unilever have participated in similar projects to improve food supply chain transparency. Such developments, together with the European Commission’s funding of countless projects based around the technology since 2013, signals that mandatory adoption may lie ahead. 


A converging world


Of course, the above represents only a snapshot of the advancements in ‘Food 4.0’, with the most interesting developments likely to emerge from convergence of those technologies in new and innovative ways. The promise of optimised processes, improved efficiencies, enhanced quality and strengthened supply chain linkages is what will ultimately drive the food sector’s migration towards Industry 4.0 technologies. Yet crucially, three decades after Robert Solow identified a perceived discrepancy between levels of investment in IT and levels of output at a national level, the key to success for businesses today and tomorrow will lie in understanding and doing a better job of deploying the potentially transformative technologies that become available to us.

Latest issue – Vol 1/23
– Health & Nutrition focus
– Gulfood 2023 Special
– Next level legume – The rise of the chickpea
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