When is an egg not an egg? Ask any consumer choosing between organic, free range, or even brown and white shelled varieties, and they may not be so sure. Better still, ask the processors and farmers whose businesses and livelihoods are invested in navigating the sometimes treacherous channels of regulatory control, consumer preference, and the demands for an efficient and therefore profitable business. Most of us living in cities tend to be oblivious to the behemoth industrial chain that delivers fresh eggs in myriad colours, packaging and sources to our supermarkets. Yet, the story of the egg is illustrative of the food industry as a whole, as it has adapted, modified and sometimes transformed in response to a range of regulatory, technological and consumer demand. It can be challenging enough that consumers have high expectations with regard to sourcing, processing, taste and price; what makes this industry even more complex is how these expectations can be set and then drastically reset in relatively short periods of time.
Our hen-to-egg-to-omelette experience is a fascinating case in point. In some respects, it’s always been the same. In others, it has changed beyond all recognition, most importantly with regard to those backend production processes that consumers never see but which have moved through umpteen evolutionary phases as a result of changing preferences and regulatory frameworks. It’s no surprise that in addressing these challenges poultry farmers are now increasingly turning to IIoT sensors to monitor their chickens to ensure they are healthy, happy and producing or growing according to target. The introduction of high-tech solutions to farming and food processing issues is nothing new, large scale industrial enterprises have been doing this for decades. However, the availability of so many high-tech low-cost systems mean that even much smaller producers are getting in on the action.
FOOD PROCESSING TO XAAS MODEL
As a quick glance around any shopping mall or main street will show, coffee would appear to have overtaken religion as the opium of the masses. illy Coffee from Trieste has been a major player and innovator in the sourcing, packaging and distribution of coffee since the early 20th century. Their latest innovations, however, have been in the field of coffee and coffee hardware as-a-service and as-a-business model. illy not only delivers coffee and coffee pods to individual consumers, stores and offices (alongside pod recycling packages let it be noted), they can also design signature cafe bars for swish department store clients or lease coffee machinery in tailor-made packages to suit any large professional client. The service element is wrapped up in an offer that includes barista training, café management schooling and even historical lectures on the illy brand and coffee beans at their academy in Trieste. illy Coffee is no longer a brand but a services provider; one that has transformed its production and processing chain into a business opportunity for others.
PRODUCTION LINE OPTIMISATION WITH IoT TECHNOLOGY
Not every business can or even wants to open up to XaaS provision. Most food processing is very much hardwired into traditional industrial production and distribution models. This is where consumer sensitivity to price, and evolving regulatory frameworks, have had the biggest impact. The innovation and deployment of affordable sensors to machinery and production lines is, literally, revolutionising the maintenance and efficiency aspects of food and beverage production. Even smaller firms can now benefit from more machine uptime and increased production through predictive rather than reactive or scheduled maintenance. Cost-effective sensors and vastly cheaper remote data collection and processing systems that upload real-time, ready-filtered data in a comprehensible fashion to mobile and desktop users via the cloud or other software systems have been the calling card for increasing opportunities for IT solutions to engineering and industrial problems. Accessibility to cloud-based computerised maintenance management software (CMMS) is the kingpin of the IT migration from commercial to industrial operations.
CONNECTED INDUSTRIAL APPLIANCES
There is, in effect, a vast open frontier for innovative IIoT applications opening up within the food processing industry right now. It may be no surprise that the highly competitive and technology friendly US market often leads by example. Take Ward Aquafarms in Maine as an example. It is a relatively modest 10 acre / 4 hectare aquaculture farm that, to maximise production quality and quantity, has worked with Verizon to tech-up their service chain using satellite imaging and track- and-trace technology, effectively digitalising their whole chain. The entire operation from the growing of oysters to the IIoT technologies and even the customer interface appears as a single, seamless and continuous operation – it’s no longer an industrial production line.
Europe is not without its innovators too. Take the midsized Italian Minerva Omega Group, which works across diverse food sectors including canteens, hospitals, retail trade, and preparation laboratories for supermarkets. To fend off low-cost competitors from as far afield as Asia, Minerva Omega decided to take the plunge into IIoT and created a spin-off company to work exclusively on developing IIoT and man-2-machine solutions to enhance efficiency. The gamble paid off as their researchers came up with NEMOSY – NExus MOnitoring SYstem, a software system to manage the entire maintenance cycle, including reporting and documentation for machines. The data is then made available via a cloud to mobile and other devices. The machines now talk to each other and to their engineers, connecting diverse locations across the world.
HOW IoT AFFECTS THE FOOD PROCESSING INDUSTRY
IIoT is not just ‘impacting’ on food processing; it is forcing a paradigm shift on how we think about and implement links within the food processing chain. This is happening both in respect of business models offering foodservice as a business model and the plurality of software and hardware solutions that are, to all intents and purposes, upgrading machines into cyborgs. IIoT is making food processing cheaper, safer, and more consumer and producer friendly. It is also helping to upskill workers in the use of technologies. Machines only replace humans who haven’t been trained to operate them.
The key is to understand the paradigm shift and work out how you can apply IIoT to your operations. Cloud computing may be affecting the industry, but only those who can see the opportunity that the cloud represents, and who can back that up with the required technical, business, and engineering nous, can deliver a powerful, holistic package.
The battery hen has, hopefully, had its day, as consumer concerns, health and safety protocols, and regulatory pressures began to banish the worst of our 20th century food-production practices. The 21st century will not reinvent the egg, an Italian espresso or the oyster – what after all is there to improve on? – but it can be an era when we identify processes that can be augmented and enhanced to give a competitive edge in the market and respond to consumer sensibilities. It can also be an area where the production lines themselves can be incorporated into the service. The opportunity in the food industry is to lead with transformative processes that will have a huge impact in how consumers perceive and respond to the end product.
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