Digital disruption from farm to fork: Tracking the food supply
John Fryer is senior director of industry solutions at Stratus Technologies, where he is responsible for go-to-market strategies and industry initiatives across all the company’s product lines. He has more than 25 years of experience with systems and software products in a variety of engineering, marketing and executive roles at startups and major companies, including Motorola, Emerson Network Power and Oracle. His experience includes more than 15 years working with high-availability solutions for the enterprise and networking industries.
By 2050, the Earth’s population is set to swell from 7 billion to 9 billion. According to a 2015 report from the World Resources Institute, the agricultural sector will need to increase production by approximately 25% in order to meet the resulting demand.
According to a recent article in Environmental Science & Technology, however, we’re wasting enough calories from food we’re already growing to be feeding an additional 1.9 billion people. This alone is nearly enough to cover the spike in population, if we were only able to lower the world’s food waste, with about a third of the crops produced annually going to waste worldwide.
The rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), with its sensor technologies and real-time data analytics capable of monitoring the food supply from farm to fork, now offers a first-ever, end-to-end solution for reducing food waste, limiting recalls and improving overall food safety.
Food supply goes digital
Farms and ranches are going digital. Food manufacturing and warehousing are going digital. Food distribution and retailing are going digital from the checkout counter to the family dinner table. Digitization of the food supply enables the IIoT to leverage its technologies to monitor and analyze the entirety of the process. From the standpoint of food quality, timeliness of delivery, waste, spoilage and recalls, the IIoT represents a change in the utilization of technology in feeding the planet.
Recalls have become a critical pain point that many are calling the food industry’s greatest threat to profitably. A joint industry study by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association showed that the average cost of a recall to a food company is $10 million in direct costs, in addition to brand damage and lost sales.
The study points out that “Most recalls (56%) resulted from operational mistakes, such as incorrect labeling, the presence of an undeclared ingredient or contamination during the production process. While biological causes, such as the detection of listeria, salmonella and E. coli were also factors, a significant number of food safety alerts were actually due to food fraud and corruption by suppliers further down the supply chain. This highlights the need for food producers to invest in ensuring the traceability of their products back through the supply chain.”
Whether operational or biological, end-to-end traceability is key to avoiding a recall, which is precisely how the IIoT’s digital scrutiny of the food system comes into play.
Intelligent, real-time end-to-end monitoring
Of course, this end-to-end real-time visibility and traceability requires a whole new level of data sharing between food manufacturers and their suppliers and distributors. Traceability through digital visibility — tracking products at every point in order to spot potential issues in real time — requires secure, cloud-based systems that collect data from across the supply chain and make it available for centralized data analytics engines.
The potential for IIoT sensor and analytics technologies to mitigate the risk of recalls is undeniable. Yet many food manufacturers are taking a cautious approach to IIoT investments. In an industry with thin margins and intense competition, how can manufacturers be sure these investments will pay off?
Three keys to IIoT success
1. Prioritize existing and evolving critical control points.
IIoT-based monitoring of the entire production process would be cost-prohibitive for most food manufacturers. Instead, target those areas most critical to food safety and quality, starting with hazards analysis and critical control points (HACCP). Thereafter, expand the IIoT “footprint” along less critical processes.
2. Use the IIoT to ensure compliance.
Food manufacturers understand the impact of the Food Safety Modernization Act, increasing their obligation to prevent threats to the food supply. Implementing IIoT technologies can significantly enhance their ability to meet this challenge.
In addition to automated in-line quality analysis via the IIoT, the presence of intelligent IIoT technologies also generates data that demonstrates to regulators that the manufacturer is monitoring food quality and safety, a key compliance requirement.
3. Minimize the risk of data loss.
Data is the lifeblood of the IIoT and protecting it throughout the supply chain is essential. That means investing in high-availability, fault-tolerant systems that prevent data loss and ensure continuous operation of critical production and monitoring equipment.
First step in the IIoT journey
The reality of safeguarding the food system from farm to fork via the IIoT is that most manufacturers will start with limited implementations that target key quality control points.
As they recognize the value generated by intelligent tracking, tracing and analysis of the supply chain and production process, they can then extend their IIoT infrastructure into new areas.
Obviously, reducing the risk of recalls is a high priority worthy of investment. However, the IIoT also enables significant economic benefits that impact other areas of the business — from optimizing production efficiencies to responding in real time to product diversion and theft in transit, to analyzing consumer preferences faster in order to improve business agility.
A great first step is a thorough assessment of the entire supply and demand chain and production process to identify the most critical control points.
From that assessment onward, it then becomes a journey of connecting one critical control point to another to evolve and optimize the overall IIoT infrastructure.