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How can technology bring the supply chain of tomorrow to the food industry of today?

big data

Bjorn Thumas, Business Development Director, TOMRA Food explores how technological innovations can change businesses throughout the supply chain.

Global food processors, packers and growers are in the middle of a technological revolution. Innovations are helping optimise yields, reduce waste and maximise profits like never before, from precision agriculture to automated sensor-based sorting systems. But there is still much more to come.

The global food supply chain is plagued by billions of tonnes of food waste due to inefficient sorting and grading systems. And the wealth of data available from millions of devices throughout the supply chain isn’t being integrated and connected to optimise production.

The future is bright. As technology becomes more advanced across these areas, the global food industry will become far more efficient and effective.

But what innovations are coming, and how will they bring the future of food industry to the supply chain of today? Here are some of the key technologies and processes that businesses will see more and more in coming years:

Gains from grading

There has been an emphasis in reducing waste in all aspects of the food cycle, with growers, packers, processors and consumers alike looking at new ways to bring down their waste figures. But this isn’t just about stopping throwing produce away, it’s about finding new and alternative ways to utilise a defective or damaged item.

Implementing a grading system which can determine whether the full product, some of the product or none of the product can be used will allow growers to increase their yields. In simple terms, the absolute most is being made of the product.

For example, if a potato is being graded for use in French fry manufacturing and it has a slight defect, the thought process needs to be where can it be used instead, with waste being the last solution.

If it doesn’t meet the grading specification for fries, it could still be diced or mashed. Even lower down the grading scale, it could be used for making cattle feed or other animal food. This way, the value remains and businesses can still make the most out of a product.

Advancements within grading processes can also give in-depth data analysis to see if the defective produce can be used for any other purpose. If the sugar content within the damaged or rotten produce is deemed above a high enough level, it can be used for creating biofuels rather than being classed as waste.

In short, grading technology can assist growers optimise yields and help reduce waste – a benefit to the future of the food industry.

The sky is the limit for tech

Embracing new technological ideas and concepts has to be at the forefront of the supply chain’s thought process for driving developments within the food industry. One of the biggest players in these developments will be drone and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.

There are only two elements needed for food analysis – a conveyancing system like a moving belt, and a sensor system like a laser scanner.

Current systems may dictate the use of conveyer belts to take, for example, fruit to the grading machinery. But why shouldn’t producers be able to take the sensor technology out into the field?

Taking an aerial approach to not only monitoring, but also potentially grading, your harvest through adding sensory technology could prove to be a cost-effective and time-efficient method. Tasks such as crop monitoring, soil and field analysis, and the overall health assessment of your harvest can be undertaken at high speeds through UAVs, against the cost and time constraints of manual labour.

Of course, at the moment drones cannot replicate the precision of factory-based sorting technology, but drones and UAVs can currently undertake the basic tasks early on in a supply chain. With further enhancements, how these airborne tools and sensory technology work together and are utilised in the future could have a huge impact on growers, packers and processors.

With the market for this solution within agriculture already being estimated at $32.5bn, expect drones to become a farm essential in the near future [1].

Don’t rely on the weather reporter

With new technology comes new data for growers to utilise. For instance, hyperlocal and long-term weather forecasting means growers can get access to environmental information before deciding when, and where, they should plant seeds on a specific plot of land.

This advancement in precision agriculture will enable growers in countries with inconsistent climates to really make the most of the harvest, reducing the risk of defective produce as they are growing crops in the best-suited conditions.

As an example, dry soil with some moisture is the ideal for planting seeds. However, for these seeds to gain optimum growth, conditions need to be balanced between wet, dry and warm. Through technology, data can be mined on the social moisture content, rainfall and the average temperature for specific times of the year to truly optimise growth periods.

The developments allow the supply chain to be more predictive and create a uniformed approach to both food farming – especially for specific trends. If raspberries are set to be popular in South Africa during May or sweet potatoes are flavour of the month in Europe in October, the weather data can be taken into consideration when growers plan their plantations for the year.

It’ll also mean the produce they are growing is at its optimum standard, thanks to being grown at exactly the right time based on weather conditions.

Super supply chains

Consolidating supply chains is certainly an interesting area. To ensure a cost-efficient practice is in operation for all those involved in fresh fruit and vegetables, there must be investments made to simplify the steps between growers, packers and processors.

So rather than having the different stages of production sitting with separate companies, what if they were owned and organised by one large outlet, from farm to fork?

Businesses with enormous buying power investing in the fresh foods supply chain would have a disruptive impact on the industry. Take Amazon as an example – it has the financial capability to purchase land for growing and harvesting, as well as the machinery needed to grade, sort, pack and process the produce. The company has already started creating its own energy, so the food industry could well be its next project [2].

Implementing high-quality systems, though, will make this process cost-effective. Yields could be increased, compared against the ‘family farm’ growers, as the systems are in place to wean any damaged or rotten produce out from the start.

Integrating all of the data from devices throughout a super supply chain by using blockchain technology will revolutionise the industry, optimising farming practice, packhouse operations, distribution and retail.

The food technology revolution isn’t on the horizon, it’s already here. Developments in processes throughout the supply chain can help reduce waste. They bring an end to disparate processes and take the data acquired by growers, packers and processors to the next level – all of which are beneficial to the future of the food industry.

Bjorn Thumas






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