Industry Insights · 24min read

IoTs in Food Manufacturing

Learn how the Internet of Things is transforming the entire food supply chain.

#1: Streamlined Logistics & Operational Efficiency

Every food manufacturer strives to streamline logistics processes and maximise operational efficiency if they wish to remain competitive. With the help of IoT technologies, manufacturers are empowered to reduce costs, save time and ultimately become more profitable. The key here lies in the integration of workflows, the connection of systems and the streamlining and automating of processes

By opting for a technology-driven approach to logistics, companies are able to capture data and continually optimise their operations to function more efficiently. This proactive approach to identifying potential issues and risks along the entire supply chain, helps businesses become more resilient in the long-run.

Production & Processing 

IoTs come in handy in this part of the food manufacturing process because of their ability to track and then predict machinery maintenance. This saves time and money because it avoids unexpected downtimes or interruptions. It also ensures that machines are proactively maintained rather than reactively repaired, resulting in higher overall equipment efficiency (OEE).

By monitoring ingredients’ temperatures, flow rates and distributions with the help of smart valves and actuators in the production stage, manufacturers can maximise their regulatory processes and product quality. This technology is especially valuable for manufacturing plants with multiple product lines and thus need to initiate seamless, resource-efficient changeovers. The use of calibrated smart valves, in particular, is used to maintain food quality as raw ingredients or final food products that do not meet set standards can be flagged or even ejected from production lines.

Warehouse & Inventory Management

IoT sensors allow for real-time tracking of products even when they are in storage. By monitoring exposures, such as moisture or sunlight, potential hazards can be identified and analysed before products are sold or shipped. IoT automation in warehouses allows food storage to be easily organised into zones to avoid issues that arise through poor handling or pests. By using moving robots or ultrasonic systems, pests can be identified much more efficiently than if one relies merely on the human eye. 

By implementing warehouse inventory tracking devices, food manufacturers and wholesalers can optimise orders and supply chain processes in real-time. This encompasses everything from optimising available storage space to loading times based on available resources. A popular example of this is vision picking’, a process by which technologies such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or robots are used to retrieve products from storage areas in warehouses. Furthermore, IoT solutions can help track product stocks and alert warehouse managers about expiration dates, which in turn avoids overstocking and waste as well as saves money. With the help of data retrieved from pressure-sensitive sensors, food manufacturers can also track customers' behavioural trends and use this information to avoid shortages down the line. This is especially helpful with foods that are subject to seasonality, such as cocoa in the lead-up to Christmas.

Product Packaging & Delivery

When it comes to packaging, downtime must be avoided wherever possible. This can be especially challenging for food manufacturers who source their packaging from third parties and incorporate it internally in their IoT production plans.

It is not uncommon for products or packaging to be damaged during the delivery process. IoT sensors are able to detect anything from degradation to damage, allowing manufacturers to develop measures to avoid these occurrences in the future. Similarly, data points can help assess and optimise production line times, which may directly impact companies’ abilities to fulfil orders and meet tight delivery deadlines

To ensure seamless deliveries, companies can introduce digitally connected supply chain networks—from suppliers and wholesalers to carriers and operators. Some of the most popular technologies utilised for logistics purposes include radio frequency identification (RFID) and GPS systems, allowing companies to monitor their products along the entire supply chain.

In the next article in this series, we will explore how IoTs are promoting traceability and transparency in the food industry.


#2: Traceability & Transparency

Farm-to-table, farm-to-fork, farm-to-restaurant, farm-to-fridge—it’s no secret that traceability is the talk of the town. Any food producers and manufacturers hoping to keep up with the rapidly evolving and highly competitive global landscape must begin tracking their food through the entire supply chain and proactively communicate information about their ingredients to consumers. 

Below, we take a brief look at how IoTs are helping promote traceability and transparency along the food supply chain.

According to Globe Newswire, the global food traceability market is expected to register a CAGR of 9.3% by 2025, which would make it a +22 billion-dollar industry. Some of the largest players propelling this growth forward include IBM Food Trust, Microsoft’s AzureFarmBeats, Trimble for agriculture. Large industry players, such as Walmart and Unilever, have been cracking down on suppliers and requiring that they implement technologies, such as IoTs and blockchain, in order to support their traceability efforts. 

Ultimately, from agriculture to food manufacturers, retailers to consumers, IoT and blockchain technologies are rapidly enabling the efficient collection and sharing of data which allows for end-to-end traceability, even in complex, globalised settings. Not only do IoTs allow companies to pick up on malfunctions or alerts, but customers are able to see where their products come from and how far they’ve travelled. Likewise, startups such as Zest Labs are even able to track and display information about foods’ freshness.

Transparency is so important nowadays that it is considered one of the food industry’s top trends of 2021. Ensuring traceability of ingredients and maintaining transparency are critical in building consumer loyalty and trust. IoT technology helps companies and consumers track their products along the entire supply chain, thereby ensuring information is always accessible. This includes extensive information about raw materials (e.g. field observation), supplies (e.g. efficiently monitoring levels), ingredients (e.g. trends and patterns) and final products (e.g. compliancy). These technologies are expected to establish themselves as the norm in the upcoming decade.


#3: Food Safety, Employee Safety & Food Authenticity

Improved Food Safety

With the help of IoTs, food manufacturers can access and make use of real-time food safety data, such as carbon dioxideheavy metalshumidity and temperature, or shipping times and storage conditions. This is often classified as Active Cold Chain Management. Some smart sensors and cloud-based predictive analytics technologies are so advanced that they can even identify pathogens along the supply chain and help mitigate their spread. How? By identifying chemical and biochemical reactions at the point of harvest, during manufacturing and even transportationHyperspectral imaging—a relatively new, broad-spectrum imaging technology—has caught the interest of food manufacturers. This technology can raise alerts instantaneously by measuring the light spectrum of certain chemical compounds and biological components

These technologies become especially valuable in the food industry when harnessed for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) checklists and processes. IoTs can flag potential violations and alert staff that a food safety inspection may be required to assess whether or not contamination has in fact taken place or safety chains that may compromise a foods’ safety have been interrupted. Therefore, this process is proactive rather than reactive, which can save businesses substantial sums of money down the line. Comprehensive track-and-trace mechanisms make it easy to act both swiftly and efficiently. And the need for recalls is significantly reduced as a result.

Human Resources & Mechanic Operations

Food safety is not just about food but also employee safety and machine safety. By monitoring factors such as staff illness, food manufacturers can continually optimise their safety standards on-site. Even before COVID, the ability to track employees’ body temperature to ensure that only healthy workers come in contact with foods was of great importance in harvesting and processing plants. Similarly, by harnessing predictive software to flag potential mechanical wear or damage before it occurs, downtime is reduced and unnecessary injuries are avoided.

Food Authenticity

IoTs are also proving their value in the organic food industry’s efforts to combat food fraud. By assigning any given product a digital identification mark, businesses are able to separate them from their counterfeit counterparts. Thus, with the help of digital tags on food packaging, actors along the entire supply chain, including wholesalers and consumers, are empowered to check products for their authenticity. Examples of these product authenticity labels include simple QR codes and somewhat more complex micro-chips. Brands who harness these technologies may quickly find that they are highly beneficial in building consumer trust.


#4: Waste Reduction

In food manufacturing, IoTs can be utilised to reduce waste drastically by controlling raw materials and inventory. Statistics reveal that, in the EU alone, 88 million tonnes of food are wasted every year, and the UN’s 12th Sustainable Development Goal commits to the reduction of this by 50% over the next decade. It is estimated that around 11% of food waste occurs in production and 9% during processing, meaning that food manufacturers account for around 20% of food waste overall. 

With the help of IoTs, food stocks can be tracked in real-time and orders for new ingredients or supplies can be placed based on actual needs rather than estimates. Furthermore, food manufacturers can also harness IoT technology to automate these to ensure more efficiency. 

One example in logistics is the implementation of IoT sensors in pallets when foods are harvested and transported to monitor and calculate shipping times and temperatures. This connects directly with the topics of traceability and food safety. It sometimes happens that foods travel longer times than perhaps initially anticipated or are exposed to less than ideal (but not unsafe) cooling conditions. In these types of events, IoTs can alert receiving warehouses about these occurrences, thus allowing them to adapt environmental components, such as humidity or temperatures, accordingly to add an extra layer of protection to these foods to ensure that they can stay in the supply chain. 

The result is the optimisation of both the quality and quantity of foods at any given point along the supply chain. Some even suggest that, in the future, IoTs can be leveraged to predict market demand which would, in turn, avoid overproduction and thus prevent spoilage, i.e. waste.

Waste reduction is not only about mitigating food waste. Moreover, it is also about bringing more sustainable practices to all areas of a food manufacturing business’s operations. This may also include tracking resources required to meet regulatory requirements or reviewing and optimising a business’s energy consumption. Furthermore, by alerting manufacturers to foods’ whose safety may have been compromised somewhere along the supply chain, businesses are able to pull these out of the supply chain swiftly, avoiding further losses or waste down the line. 

Last but certainly not least, one of the most critical areas of waste reduction pertains to the reduction of food manufacturers’ carbon emissions, which is crucial in the global and industry-wide fight against climate change. A 2019 study revealed that significant amounts of carbon are emitted into the atmosphere every year for the one-billion tonnes of food that the entire globe produces to be wasted. If we account for the effects that agriculture and food industries have on biodiversity and freshwater consumption, the real ‘cost’ of waste rises further.

Imagery: (1) Michael Dziedzic, (2) Daniel Vogel, (3) Phuc Long, (4) The Blowup, (5) & (6) Walter Otto, (7) Charles Deluvio via | Videos: (1) IoT, Industrial IoT, and Digital Twins in Food & Beverage Production by Tech Clarity, (2) Farm-to-Fork - How IoT is Transforming Food Traceability - IoT TiE Inflect 2018 via YouTube

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