From Field To Plate – How the Tech Industry Enables the Food Supply Chain, Part 3
In our extended look at the food supply chain, we covered agri-tech in Part 1, and meat, fish, and vegan protein production in Part 2, showing how the technology industry was intertwined with them all, radically changing the fundamentals of the food supply chain – the food items we actually eat.
But the links in the chain between the farm, the processing plant or the factory, and the stores and supermarkets where we first become aware that there is a food supply chain are where technology businesses come into their own.
The two important links in the chain between processing plant and supermarket are broadly divisible into Storage and Transport. But within each of the links, the ways that tech companies have found to make the process smoother, more efficient, and more cost effective are legion. So much so that this part of our food supply chain examination comes with a disclaimer – there is no way to count all the ways, and besides that, you’re busy. We’ll take a broad look at the kind of functionality the tech industry is adding to the food supply chain. Your mileage, as they say, may vary, depending on your areas of special interest.
The average food storage warehouse is by no reasonable standard average anymore. Since the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011, there has been a concerted effort within the food supply chain to eradicate as much food-borne sickness as possible. As far as storage is concerned, that means up-to-the-minute temperature control, monitoring, and management systems, as well as easy batch identification, robotic transport (for speed, efficiency and safety), and a top-notch analytics game, to ensure there are no slip-ups in the process.
There are tech companies out there creating vividly-colored smart packaging, to make movement through the food supply chain faster and less prone to human error. Smart packaging with built-in color-based freshness indicators can speed fresh produce with a limited viability through warehousing, to any chilled or cold storage that it requires, or through to transportation as soon as possible. That’s a technological enhancement that minimizes food waste in warehouses, after all the effort that has gone into producing and packaging the food, and is especially useful when dealing with raw meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, which are famously more rapidly perishable than processed foods.
There are many areas of warehouse work where robots are more efficient than their human counterparts – and can carry out the functions that link the food supply chain together with much greater safely and speed.
Automated Guided Vehicles can be set to fetch, carry, transport food items from arrival, to storage, to distribution. Where once there would have been a person on a forklift or a cart-picker, AGVs can do the job faster, more efficiently, and (within the siloed environment of a warehouse) safely, navigating to items or pallets with unerring accuracy.
Automated Storage/Automated Retrieval systems (AS/AR) are effectively robocranes, that can be instructed to lift and place heavy pallets full of food product into their assigned warehouse space – and retrieve them when the time for them to be transported to stores has come.
Goods-to-Person technology is an example of a hybrid system, where something like an AS/AR delivers x-amount of food product to a single location, where human operators take control of the process and decide where the food is destined to go next.
Warehouse Management Systems
Before we go much further, it becomes necessary to explain that all these robots, and much else that makes the modern tech-enabled warehouse work, is controlled through a warehouse management system – a computerized ‘brain’ at the heart of the operation, that can be interrogated or instructed by human operators, either in situ or remotely through wirelessly-connected tablets or laptops.
The warehouse management system is not only there to tell the robots where to go and what to do, though. It will handle scheduling, import forms, export forms, transport needs, cold store temperature monitoring, staff rotas and much more. Everything that goes on inside the warehouse, particularly warehouses storing food, will be represented in the warehouse management system, so that as much as possible happens automatically, like smooth, complicated digital clockwork, and for the elements that need human direction, there’s a single, simple portal that can allow managers to run their warehouses meticulously and to sometimes strict turnaround deadlines.
The IoT and Freshness Management
We’ve already mentioned the existence of smart packaging with what are essentially Internet of Things sensors on, that can monitor and report the freshness of any fresh and perishable food. But the Internet of Things goes far beyond that in modern warehousing. Following the lead of meat processing plants, a network of IoT sensors with rolling logs can monitor temperature control in cold or chilled storage units, and alert the warehouse management system, which may be able to adjust the temperature automatically when notified, or flag up issues to push immediate maintenance of the system and re-allocation of space in other, fully functioning chilled or cold storage units as necessary.
The modern food storage warehouse is an example of digital transformation at its best and most practical. The application of several different technological systems, working in harmony to remove dangerous labor from human workers, maintain food freshness, and smooth the journey of food products as they’re processed along the supply chain.
Transportation is actually at least three links in the food supply chain – from farm to processing plant, from plant to warehouse, and from warehouse to store. But we treat it as a single link running through the whole chain, because most of the technology applied to the businesses of food transportation is the same, wherever in the chain the transportation happens.
Same Old Same Old
It’s also worth saying that in terms of the physical technology involved, you’ll have seen it before. Robotic cranes and/or forklifts will load trucks, taking out the back-breaking human labor of doing that part of the job. The warehouse management system will frequently liaise with the logistics system of the haulier, and with a signature on a pad or specialized handheld device, both parties will generate an electronic agreement that x-amount of y-product was transferred from one to the other at z-time/location.
The same sort of temperature control sensors as are in the warehouse can be fitted in the trucks if temperature control is vital to maintaining the freshness of the food throughout its journey.
Where technology takes strides forward in the transport link, of the food supply chain is in logistics and fleet management. New, modern systems can allow fleet managers to route trucks around particular hotspots, so they’re not stuck in traffic snarl with potentially spoiling fresh food. Routes can be planned that make the most efficient use of fuel, while dropping off at each store location in a given area. And they can send drivers in ways that not only make financial sense for the haulier, but also make sure that food arrives at supermarkets in pristine condition, with some leeway on its expiration date, so that customers have the best and most plentiful choice of what to pick up for dinner.
The Impact of Technology
The storage and transport links in the food supply chain are as vital as the production links, as well as exemplifying the impact that technology and digital transformation can bring to a process that has previously served its audience well. The change to do things better through technology, to improve results, improve efficiency, and improve process monitoring (a particular concern of the Food Safety Modernization Act), so fewer people get sick from the food on their shelves, and more people have access to a greater variety of food products.
In Part 4 of this article, we’ll take a look at the final link in the chain, the tremendous impact of technology on the food sales experience in recent years, from automatic stock referencing to EPOS, to bar coding, automated registers, apps, home delivery, coupons, coupons on loyalty rewards.