Emerging and converging 20/09/2021 by Sarah Pursey
A convergence of smart, interconnected technologies is at last starting to propel the F&B industry into the much-vaunted Fourth Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the integration of associated tech 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 certainly, recent developments indicate fresh understanding of just what advantages lie ahead for early movers on numerous advancing and converging technologies.
Historically unwieldy, dangerous, and confined to large industrial settings, robots are now overcoming traditional challenges at a far lower price point. While the cost of robotics has long been a barrier for smaller businesses, new kit like Wyzo – the world’s first direct-drive pick-and-place ‘sidebot’ – is today providing a much more affordable entry-point to the world of advanced automation (p14). Set to be showcased at PACK EXPO in Las Vegas at the end of the month, the compact and flexible Wyzo works safely side-by-side with humans, requiring zero protective barriers or performance compromises.
Across the food industry, the rise of IIoT is ushering forth enormous benefits that could soon become the norm. With the better data and remote access that such devices provide, it will be easier than ever for companies to trace food, reduce waste and better maintain critical equipment. Beyond the production plant, IMS Evolve is betting on IoT to turbo-charge the sustainability efforts of supermarkets (p12), with retail giants like Tesco already grasping how such software could deliver the kind of reductions in energy consumption and food waste that supermarkets need, yet without the huge capital costs inherent in replacing key assets.
Optimisation is of course key to sustainability across the F&B sector – especially as resources like water, land, energy and other inputs become more constrained. This realisation is driving major investments like Dubai’s Food Tech Valley (p9) – a state-funded initiative aimed at tripling the UAE’s food production. The multi-billion-dollar project will encompass a highly advanced vertical farm, combined with a focus on bioengineering, robotics and automation, alongside an R&D zone dedicated to drought-resistant crops, alternative protein production, 3D printing, crop monitoring/analysis, and numerous other areas of advancement. Crucial for a project essentially rising from the desert will be its focus on the environment. Indeed, the project is expected to become a “significant disruptor” for traditional food systems in its emphasis on sustainability, low GHG emissions, and resource conservation. Touted for its potential as a future food tech hub rival to Singapore, Dubai’s new project could prove significant for food security not just nationally but also regionally, acting as a blueprint for neighbouring countries to replicate.
Aside from sustainability, animal welfare is a growing concern for many consumers. In part, such considerations are driving the rise in traceability-boosting tech, alongside a flurry of next-gen plant-based breakthroughs (p6) by innovators looking to gnaw away at the enormous conventional meat and dairy markets. Welfare concerns are also fuelling the development of tech aimed at improving farming practices. Leading in this area, Danone has recently been championed for its digital global assessment tool for cow welfare (p19), which benchmarks all the dairy giant’s farms across 14 countries to the same welfare criteria – and provides each site with a smart action plan for improvement. Encouragingly, Danone has shared its innovative tool (operated by the farmer via tablet) with other firms in order to promote best practice, thus opening up the potential to monitor and improve welfare on a global, industry-wide level.
Naturally, the successful and wide-scale deployment of such advancements will hinge upon the effective exchange of knowledge – be it disseminated by tech providers to factory operatives, or between countries looking to boost yields, or even between competitors for the greater good. Nonetheless, from safety, quality, efficiency and productivity, to traceability, sustainability, welfare and more besides, the benefits of harnessing these potentially transformative technologies could prove legion to F&B enterprises the world over in the years ahead.
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