At a time when advances in virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) have begun to move from the pages of science fiction onto the floors of factories, boardrooms and businesses—and even the hands of consumers—it is easy to see how and why innovative new technologies are being viewed as game-changing breakthroughs.
One of the most exciting technology frontiers is the field of augmented reality (AR) technology, not only for the intriguing potential that AR solutions represent, but for the practical applications that are already transforming the face of industries as diverse as automotive, healthcare and aerospace. AR is changing the way products are made and tested, the way personnel are trained, and even the way factories and facilities are designed and run. It seems clear that when it comes to AR, the future is now.
The same AR-based technology solutions that are streamlining and error-proofing manufacturing and assembly processes, and making workplaces safer, smarter and more efficient, have the potential for an equally transformative impact in food production and food service environments. From food production facilities to restaurants, AR technology can improve speed, quality and consistency in any operation. Taking a closer look at some existing examples of AR applications can provide a better sense of how AR tech can help brands and businesses in the food and beverage space effectively address persistent challenges and capitalize on emerging opportunities.
Nuts and Bolts
While the platform specifics vary from one application to the next, the basics of AR remain consistent: An emerging constellation of systems and technologies designed to provide real-time audio and visual guidance, offering hands-free functionality that is both interactive and adaptive. Regardless of the industry, the ultimate goal is to ensure tasks are completed safely, correctly and efficiently.
Some AR technology solutions utilize a digital operating “canvas” as a kind of virtual overlay. This digital overlay can be projected directly into almost any workspace and onto almost any work surface. This allows AR solutions to provide prompts, pacing and direction with unprecedented clarity and specificity. It also allows AR platforms to be extremely flexible and customizable, capable of being deployed to meet the unique demands of a virtually unlimited range of scenarios, processes and work environments. The inherent flexibility of today’s rapidly expanding suite of AR tech solutions is hugely important for restaurant and food industry applications, where kitchens and workspaces vary from one facility to the next. That flexibility even extends to real-time adjustments. The best AR platforms are fully programmable, giving operators the ability to select preset sequences, programs or processes with the push of a button.
Quality and Efficiency
The promise of AR is not just the pursuit of perfection as an abstract ideal, but the potential to take substantive and meaningful steps that get far closer to an optimized, error-free operation than has ever previously been possible. AR technology can help build the perfect pizza; brew the perfect cup of coffee; cook, plate and serve extraordinary food with zero errors and higher productivity; and even ensure the right amounts of the right products are labeled, packaged and shipped correctly.
Something as simple as a lighted visual indicator projected directly onto a pizza showing exactly where every pepperoni should be placed can make a tremendous positive difference. This ensures that the right quantity is used, that every pizza looks great, and even allows those preparing each pie to move a little faster and more efficiently. Reducing waste, boosting efficiency and improving quality and presentation all in one.
Similar projection technology can ensure precise slicing and portions for a wide range of ingredients and prepared foods. In the process, workers can do away with a number of more cumbersome tools and intervening steps. Virtual solutions saving a few seconds at each step can add up to some significant time savings by the end of a shift.
The range of tools that can be integrated into an AR system is virtually unlimited. From laser tracking to precise scales, the possibilities are exciting. In the chaos, confusion and pressure of a working kitchen, anything that allows cooks, servers and other food service professionals to move faster and more efficiently is a welcome addition. Many AR systems feature integrated no-faults-forward functionality that will not allow the user to move forward to the next step if the previous steps have not been completed correctly. This virtually eliminates human error, and goes a long way toward boosting the quality and consistency of the finished product. In both a food production and a food service context, that is enormously significant.
A similarly substantive impact can be realized upstream in the food production process, as well. Part picking and sequencing technology can ensure the right products and ingredients are packed, stored and delivered correctly, allowing warehouse and delivery personnel to move faster and make fewer mistakes. Similarly, inspection and quality control processes can be more comprehensive and effective, all while taking less time.
Traceability is a high priority in food production and preparation. Whatever the path from farm to table, knowing exactly where each ingredient was sourced is important not only in terms of food safety, but also loss control—ultimately making production and preparation processes more efficient.
AR solutions can not only help increase efficiency and facilitate error-free productivity, but they can also help identify, diagnose and correct procedural pain points. Detailed procedural records and digital imagery of each food item produced ensures that potential issues can be traced not just to individual food workers, but to the exact step in the process where things went awry. The “digital birth certificates” that can be generated through AR’s advanced and accessible tracking, monitoring and verification capabilities make it possible to quickly identify bottlenecks and other challenges, and ultimately implement improvements that streamline operations.
Training and Integration
AR technology is also extremely valuable as a training tool. In the food service industry, where relatively high turnover rates are a common challenge, systems and software that can deliver a training experience that is standardized, effective and fast, are a game-changer. Eliminating training variation and ensuring that every new employee learns the same information, in the same way, is something that can have a dramatic and sustained impact on consistency, productivity, and, ultimately, the bottom line.
The kitchen of the future will also need to interface more effectively with back office systems (BOS), and AR tech solutions show great promise here, as well. Connecting detailed data feeds with a BOS in real time allows managers and other decision-makers to make more informed and strategic decisions about everything from operations and logistics, to seating and food preparation.
Efficiency Boost (Productivity)
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of introducing AR tech platforms into the food production and service industries is that the technology has the potential to address all three major priorities that brands and businesses face: Quality, productivity and traceability. And at a time when many restaurants are addressing large-scale structural challenges like rising wages, the potential to significantly bring down costs by being more productive and having greater throughput is an appealing proposition.
To understand just how dramatic the efficiency improvements can be, we need not look further than industries where AR tech already has a substantial foothold. Studies have consistently shown that, even with experienced operators, AR platforms lead directly to significant—and in many cases dramatic—improvements in productivity. A 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review cited a Boeing study that showed AR improved productivity in assembly processes by 25%. GE Healthcare saw even more dramatic results, with workers completing tasks 46% faster. Factoring in additional examples, the “average productivity improvement” was 32%, with error rates approaching zero. Extrapolate those types of results in food production and food service environments, and it’s easy to see how and why AR technology is generating so much excitement. More than just a culinary trend or fad, AR tech has the potential to spark a fundamental restructuring of the operational backbone of food service and production facilities.