Tag Archives: automation

Jason Chester, InfinityQS
FST Soapbox

Digital Revolution: Empowering the Remote Workforce and Resilience Post-COVID-19

By Jason Chester
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Jason Chester, InfinityQS

Around the world, countries are beginning to take tentative steps toward a return to normalcy following months of stay-at-home mandates and other restrictions in light of COVID-19. Slowly, we’re starting to see employees return to their offices, retail stores open their doors, and restaurants welcome back patrons. However, many will find themselves in a world dramatically different from the one they left before quarantine.

Namely, on top of social distancing and disinfection measures to control further spread of the virus, entire industries are re-examining their legacy processes and systems—especially ones that presented operational challenges at the pandemic’s outbreak—the food manufacturing industry included.

In truth, food manufacturers have gone to great lengths to maintain productivity and output to meet demand throughout the pandemic. But they have done so in the face of unprecedented circumstances, with many plants operating with limited workforces and key employees like quality professionals and plant managers shifted to remote work. Lacking connectivity between those on the plant floor and at home due to long-held manual processes, a growing number of manufacturers must now take a hard look at their quality and safety programs and embrace digital tools.

A Wake-Up Call for Digital Transformation

Most technological investments in food manufacturing over the past several decades have centered on electro-mechanical automation designed to scale up the physical production process. Fewer investments, however, have been made on the equally important data-driven, decision-making process necessary for ensuring optimal performance, food quality and safety.

Even in the most heavily automated plants, it’s not uncommon to find manufacturers managing quality through manually updated spreadsheets, which are often only reviewed after the fact, when it’s too late for remedial correction. There are unfortunately also those who still rely on paper checklists, making it practically impossible to take proactive action on collected process data—much less get the information in front of remote quality professionals and managers. Meanwhile, others have gone as far as adopting software solutions for quality data management and process control, but these tend to be on-premises systems that employees can’t access outside of the four walls of the plant.

We have also seen many examples where, due to workforce restrictions and availability, employees from other parts of the manufacturing business (e.g., R&D, IT, and back-office teams) have been brought in to perform plant-floor activities like quality and food safety checks. The goal has been to prevent impediments to production output, just when demand has increased substantially. But ensuring that these employees perform the checks on time and in the correct way—with little time for training or coaching—has left many plant leaders in a precarious position.

The challenges seen with these capabilities and enabling geographically dispersed teams to work together through the pandemic have been a wake-up call of sorts for digital transformation. Manufacturers are coming to the realization that they’ll need data accessibility, actionability and adaptability along the road to recovery and in the post-COVID-19 world. And with social distancing and other workplace precautions expected to continue for the foreseeable future, the imperative is all the more urgent.

The Solution Lies in the Cloud

To digitally transform quality and safety programs today, food manufacturers should prioritize investment in the cloud. Notably, cloud-based quality management systems offer a way to standardize and centralize critical process information, as well as tools to empower employees at all levels of the enterprise.

For plant-floor operators struggling to keep up on account of reduced workforce sizes, such solutions can automate routine yet important activities for quality assurance, including data collection, process monitoring and reporting. If a team member needs to cover a different shift or unfamiliar task, role-based dashboards can help them to see required actions, while process workflows can provide guidance to ensure proper steps are taken even with a limited workforce. Further, automated alerts can provide timely notifications of any issues—whether it be a missed data collection or an actual food quality or safety concern present in the data.

Perhaps most importantly during the pandemic and for the post-COVID-19 world, the cloud makes critical quality data instantly and easily accessible from anywhere, at any time. Quality professionals, plant managers, and other decision-makers can continue to monitor and analyze real-time process data, as well as observe performance trends to prevent issues from escalating—all safely from home.

The scalability of cloud-based solutions also streamlines deployment so organizations can rapidly implement and standardize on a single system across multiple lines and sites. In doing so, it becomes possible to run cross-plant analyses to identify opportunities for widescale process improvement and align best practices for optimal quality control at all sites. This ability to understand what’s happening in production—through real-time data—to enact agile, real-world change is a hallmark of successful digital transformation.

An Investment for Whatever the Future Holds

Ultimately, investments in secure cloud-based quality management and the broader digital transformation of manufacturing operations are investments in not only perseverance during the pandemic, but also resilience for the future. Food producers and manufacturers who can readily access and make informed decisions from their data will be the ones best equipped to pivot and adjust operations in times of disruption and uncertainty. And while it’s unclear what the future holds for the world, the food industry, and COVID-19, it’s safe to say we likely won’t see a full return to normalcy but the emergence of a new—and in many ways better—normal, born out of digital solutions and smarter ways of thinking about quality data collection and monitoring.

Shane Morris, RiskLimiter, Gleason Technology
Retail Food Safety Forum

Modern Technology’s Approach to Food Safety

By Shane Morris
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Shane Morris, RiskLimiter, Gleason Technology

Many food retailers are dependent on outdated methods of recording product food temperature that include pen, paper and trust given to employees to remember to complete inspections. Unfortunately, this style of inspection completion can be an outlet for foodborne Illness outbreaks. As technologies advance to offer real-time reporting, managing such vital inspections and reports has never been so simple while drastically reducing risk and increasing consumer safety.

Food service management should be asking the following questions on a daily basis:

  • What food items passed & failed the cooling/cooking process?
  • Why did these items fail and what is the monetary value of product loss?
  • Have safety & operational checklist logs been completed on time?
  • What corrective actions were issued?
  • Have temperature-controlled cases failed within the last 24 hours?

With recent breakthroughs in food safety technology, the answers to the above questions can be found in your email inbox, online dashboard or mobile application. There are technologies available that give food service providers the ability to efficiently track and manage their food safety efforts by digitizing any type of food safety, quality assurance and sanitation inspections. One such technology uses a dual infrared/probe Bluetooth thermometer and real-time temperature sensors to help complete food safety temperature checks as well as bringing automation to cooling, cooking, and “time as temp” logs. This kind of technology can be integrated into food safety and risk management tools such as sensor monitoring or location-driven inspection technology.

This proprietary Bluetooth thermometer uses a dual infrared/probe and real-time temperature sensors. Image courtesy of RiskLimiter.

Sufficient inspection software is not just a format for checklist completion. Software developed for the food service industry is behavioral based, meaning the software will guide inspectors to their next question and corrective action; or it automates the processes all together. This includes reminding inspectors when inspections are due in addition to providing snap shots to management on the status of said inspections with the ability to easily pull all data from the cloud.

Automated Logs for Cooking, Cooling and ‘Time as Temp’

Before taking a closer look at how new technology is shaping cooling logs, cooking logs, and time as a public health control; the following are a few terms to remember:

  • Cooling & Cooking Logs: Recording of food product temperatures during cooking & cooling cycles that meet both time and temperature constraints outlined by the FDA.
  • Time as a Public Health Control: Food product whose holding compliance is measured not by temperature but by time spent in the range of 41° F – 135° F after either being cooled below 41° F or heated above 135° F, as outlined by the FDA.
  • Strategy: What is being done with the food product? Is it being cooked, cooled or held for Time as a Public Health Control?
  • Phase: Time and/or temperature constraints set within the strategy. For example, cooling product from 135° F to 70° F within two hours or cooking to 165° F before being served.

As one of the most groundbreaking forms of food safety inspections, automated cooling and cooking logs create the ability to customize strategies for such processes. Cooling and cooking logs are an important aspect of food safety for their ability to complete the product lifecycle that can often times be overlooked. Such logs also help to ensure food product is cooked to proper temperatures before it is served to customers. Cooling log strategies look for product to be cooled from 135° F to 70° F within two hours and from 70° F to 41° F within four hours. Cooking logs are built in similar fashion but may vary on the type of product.

Proactive technology allows food service personnel to automate the cooling and cooking process with sensors that record and save product temperatures during cooking and cooling strategies. Once temperature thresholds are succeeded or anticipated to be missed, customized alerts can notify employees that the food is either ready to be served or that action is needed to avoid product loss.

For example, cooling a batch of rotisserie chickens would typically require an employee to manually check the product temperature every 30 minutes to ensure the rotisserie chickens are being cooled properly. With new technology, this same employee can insert a food-grade sensor probe into one or more of the chickens and walk away. The employee can reference a mobile application and real-time push notifications to ensure the chickens are cooling from 135° F to 70° F within two hours and from 70° F to 41° F within four hours. If the software’s algorithms predict that the rotisserie chickens will not meet the conditions set in the phase, proactive push notifications will be sent to the employee for specific action to ensure proper cooling, which avoids product loss and consumer claims related to foodborne illness. Using this method also allows for overnight cooling logs in addition to saving labor hours, all while eliminating paper.

As demand for increased food safety practices continues to climb, so will the capabilities of behavioral based inspection technology. Equipped with industry leading software engineers along with dual purpose customer support and onboarding services, this space will expand on its software and hardware capabilities to replace all outdated methods of inspection processes.

Michelle Lombardo Smith, The Wenger Group
FST Soapbox

Top of the Pecking Order: How We Transformed Our Processes

By Michelle Lombardo Smith
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Michelle Lombardo Smith, The Wenger Group

A 75-year-old feed manufacturer making more than 2,000 feed formulas is bound to have a lot of business complexities. Add to that several years of rapid growth combined with outdated, manual processes. Several years ago, this was the situation we faced at our family-owned feed manufacturer and egg/poultry provider in the mid-Atlantic region.

We needed a way to simplify and streamline key processes, such as activities involved with safety and compliance. After evaluating several enterprise content management systems in 2015, we eventually selected Laserfiche to digitize records, implement electronic forms and automate manual workflows. While we completed an initial Laserfiche software install in 2016, we were still tasked with the process of building out solutions the company wanted to use in house, and we therefore continue to work closely with the company today.

Meeting Regulations With Data Sheets

Our initial project focused on digitizing our collection of safety data sheets, standardized documents that contain occupational safety and health data. Prior to implementing this software, we relied on paper manuals across different locations. Managing the creation of new data sheets and ensuring old ones were removed became quite the task. This project couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) had recently mandated changes to the data sheets.

By digitizing data sheets and storing them in a central repository, the documents were made more accessible and searchable for mill managers, and compliant to the new mandated standard. Additionally, data sheets were easily retrieved for any first responders seeking to understand what chemicals were in a facility in the event of a fire. It now takes just minutes to search for and retrieve documents, helping the organization stay in compliance with state reporting. Having the ability to create and add new sheets immediately is a tremendous benefits as well. These new capabilities allow us to help keep employees safer than ever before.

Shortened Delivery Processes

The next process that needed to be targeted was deliveries. Delivery tickets at the feed mills were billed based on production weight in the company’s enterprise resource planning software, and delivery weight was entered manually when the physical tickets were returned to the office, which could sometimes be days after the product was shipped. When the shipped weight showed a different amount than the production weight, the finance team had to issue the customer a credit leading to more inefficiency and a wrinkle in customer confidence.

Laserfiche allowed the company to develop delivery tickets to be scanned at the mill. Tickets are now available in 24 hours, and the processing time for invoicing has gone from six hours to just three. Warranty costs have decreased while customer confidence has increased.

Mobile App to the Rescue

Finally, with the mobile app the organization was able to decrease the complexity for one of its farming divisions, Dutchland Farms, all while staying in legal compliance. This specific division contracts egg production and pullet growing. The FDA published its Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) regulations in 2015, a regulation that directly applied to Dutchland’s this team of growers and producer. The directive added to the list of antibiotics that required a veterinarian’s prescription to administer. In addition, flock owners now had to have a flock health plan and an established relationship with a veterinarian. We initially had a manual process to write and store the plans, but that process was digitized and automated with Laserfiche in 2017. Service technicians can now get electronic forms signed at the farm and be immediately transmitted to the company’s consulting veterinary practician, who lives out of the country. As a result, we were able to significantly reduce the time from farm signature to vet approval/signature of the Flock Health Plans, and saved on a huge amount of paper copies and mail costs.

What’s next? These days, we’re searching for a new ERP system, a multi-year journey that will include scanning capabilities and an expanded role for Laserfiche. Meanwhile, all the products developed are still a work in progress even as the software expands to teams like quality assurance and human resources.

Derek Rickard, Cimcorp Automation Ltd.
FST Soapbox

Up to Speed: How Automated Order Picking Protects Product Freshness

By Derek Rickard
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Derek Rickard, Cimcorp Automation Ltd.

Today’s food producers and retailers are in a constant race against time. This race starts within the four walls of the distribution center, where products must move from receiving, through storage and dispatch—with high speed and accuracy. While the goal (or finish line) is to get these products to stores as fast as possible and meet consumer expectations, speed of delivery also plays a vital role in ensuring the quality of foods—particularly easily perishable ones like fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats, certain dairy products and baked goods.

Namely, efficient product flow means companies can meet shorter lead times and thereby deliver fresher, safer food—with longer shelf lives—to market. It’s a seemingly easy concept, yet many organizations continue to stumble as a result of ongoing operational challenges that slow distribution down, especially in facilities that continue to utilize manual order picking.

Major challenges include:

  • Continued reliance on physical labor with fulfillment speed highly dependent on the endurance of individual employees.
  • SKU proliferation due to product diversification, where facilities must now store and manage more products than ever before in a seemingly shrinking amount of space.
  • Seasonal spikes in business that require order picking staff to work harder and often longer hours to keep up with the influx of orders.

For organizations struggling to address these challenges and meet the need for speed in distribution, now is an opportune time to look at automation. There are now robotic order picking systems that can store, retrieve and move products effortlessly through a facility, ensuring rapid handling and very short lead times.

By choosing to automate, food producers and retailers can realize numerous benefits, including the following.

1. Accelerated Order Fulfillment

Naturally a robotic system can assemble orders and prepare them for outbound shipping far faster than humanly possible. Thus, an automated distribution center is often up to six times more efficient than a manual one. Notably, there are systems now that integrate order picking and product handling in a single solution, rather than separate functions (as traditionally done but which is too slow for fresh food distribution).

Such a system can perform both buffer storage and order picking in one simultaneous operation for significant time savings. Facilities can thereby prepare orders closer to the time of a truck’s arrival, instead of hours in advance. Foods then spend less time in transport and can maintain their quality and consistency. This also helps to reduce chances of spoilage, which in turn cuts back on waste and the supply chain’s impact on the environment.

2. Improved Ergonomics and Workplace Safety

In distribution centers that rely solely on manual order picking, employees have to run up and down long stretches of aisles and lift heavy crates or boxes. In addition to being inefficient, such manual operations make order picking a strenuous and injury-prone job. The risks for injury have only helped further the labor shortage problem seen nationwide, as job seekers show declining interest in material handling careers.

But when automated systems take over the majority of order picking processes, there is less human involvement—which can help fill in any gaps left by labor shortages. Order fulfillment speed also becomes less dependent on the physical capabilities of employees. Existing staff can then be elevated into new roles in managing and overseeing automated systems. These are safer and far more enriching positions that can draw a whole new pool of technical talent.

3. Better Space Utilization

As mentioned, there is a growing trend towards product diversification, where companies are now offering more options to consumers, such as additional sizes, flavors and health-conscious choices. As a result, the number of SKUs in most distribution centers is exploding. Some facilities once designed to house a few hundred SKUs are now dealing with thousands, leaving little room to spare.

Those challenged by SKU proliferation can consider an overhead robotic system that uses high-density, floor-based storage, where goods are stacked on the warehouse floor. This eliminates the need for racking or traveling around aisles. Plus, it reduces the number of movements required to pick an order. Facilities can store more products within their existing space, offsetting the costs of possible new construction. An overhead robotic system can also clear all products from the warehouse floor for easy, hygienic cleaning.

4. Flexibility to Keep Up During Seasonal Peaks

In all consumer goods industries, there are times of the year when demand spikes and orders come pouring in. For the food industry, companies tend to see spikes during the holiday season and in the summer months—times when people commonly host get-togethers.

Seasonal peaks can take a heavy toll on manual warehouse operations. Some try to hire temporary employees to get by, but that comes with challenges in providing proper training in a short span of time. But automated systems—particularly those with a modular design—are flexible and scalable, enabling facilities to adjust their number of robots to meet fluctuations in order volume—during seasonal highs and lows.

A notable example of a food company that is successfully leveraging automation is grocery leader Kroger. Namely, Kroger wanted to develop a state-of-the-art, automated plant and distribution center to achieve many of the benefits discussed above, including ensuring product quality and reducing employee risks of injury.

Built in Denver, Colorado, Kroger’s “Mountain View Foods” facility processes fresh conventional and organic milk, and packages aseptically processed milk, creams and juices. Within Mountain View Foods, Kroger has installed an end-to-end automated system that can store up to 36,000 crates and pick 32,000 crates per day. Cases are picked according to specified sequences on one end of the facility and then palletized for truck loading at the other, with significant storage buffering in between.

Cimcorp, Kroger, Automation
Having installed an end-to-end automated system, Kroger benefits from orders picked with 100-percent accuracy, at faster speeds, which results in shorter lead times and optimal product freshness for shoppers. Image courtesy of Cimcorp.

A warehouse control system (WCS) controls all robotic movements and serves as the brains behind the automation. The software also collects data on each processed order, giving Kroger traceable information to meet food safety requirements. Kroger benefits from orders picked with 100-percent accuracy, at faster speeds, which results in shorter lead times and optimal product freshness for shoppers.

Kroger’s story demonstrates the power of automation in enabling more streamlined order fulfillment. Those that choose to automate can overcome the many challenges that inhibit efficient product flow and thereby bolster their supply chain velocity. Simply put, faster fulfillment means fresher products in stores. And, fresher products are safer products for consumers to enjoy.

Eddie Hall, Vital Vio
FST Soapbox

How Automated Technology is Transforming Sanitation in Plant Operations

By Eddie Hall
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Eddie Hall, Vital Vio

Food safety remains a top-of-mind concern for food manufacturers, especially considering some of the top recalls in 2019 were caused by bacteria contamination—including Listeria and E. coli. Every aspect of the plant operation, from maintenance to executives, to junior staff and quality control, holds both responsibility and concern in producing safe food. Unfortunately, there’s a lot at stake when plant operations’ sanitation programs run into issues, which can cause health threats.

While the rapid explosion of new innovations complements our daily lives in efficiency and convenience, plant operations may find difficulty in keeping up-to-speed with new technology such as robotics, drones and automated applications. When facilities’ equipment becomes more and more outdated, it poses food safety challenges around cleaning, maintenance and upgrades.

Luckily, in some cases, innovation is becoming much easier to deploy. Opportunities abound for food processing plants to integrate new technologies into their operations to deliver significant returns on investment while simultaneously enhancing sanitation, safety and production efficiency on the plant floor.

The Dangers with Today’s Practices

There are many pitfalls with older, more traditional cleaning techniques. In a place where cleanliness is critical to food safety and public health around the world, the industry understands sanitation means more than just scrubbing, mopping and wiping. While these are important daily practices to be done around the processing plant, there are still concerns on whether this kind of intermittent cleaning is truly enough to keep surfaces completely sanitized—knowing that continuous cleaning around the clock seems impractical in any facilities.

Unfortunately, there are many areas, some very hard to reach, for bacteria and other pathogens to live and spread around a processing plant. Zone 1, which holds the conveyor belt and other common high-touch points, consistently comes into contact with food, chemicals and humans. However, for processors to reduce the likelihood of contaminated food, they must consider areas outside of Zone 1 as well—including employee break rooms, hallways and bathrooms—to implement automated sanitation technologies. Additionally, the most common food contaminants, such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli, are usually invisible to the naked eye. Therefore, plants need to employ automated technology to continuously kill microscopic bacteria, mold and fungi to prevent regrowth and ensure clean food and equipment.

Looking to New Tech to Fight Germs

When looking to upgrade a plant operation facility, automated technology should be top-of-mind. Automated food production technologies solve two main problems: Food safety and sanitation efficiency. Wash-down robotic systems work to prevent food contamination, while other automated robots complete tasks on the production floor such as packaging, transporting and lifting. With the CDC estimating that roughly one in six Americans suffer from foodborne illnesses, the need for improved sanitation design is integral.

In today’s age, there are several ways to achieve heightened cleanliness by incorporating automation and robotics into production lines. Slicers, dicers and cutters are manufactured with hygienic design in mind. Smart cleaning equipment can automatically store various cleaning steps. Data tracking applications can monitor sanitation steps and ensure all boxes are checked throughout the cleaning program.

Incorporating antimicrobial LED lighting ensures sanitation is truly integrated into the facility’s design—working continually 24/7 to kill and prevent bacteria, and its growth while also serving a dual purpose of both antimicrobial protection and a proper source of illumination. As is the case with this type of technology, once these lights are installed, it becomes an easy, hands-free way of reducing labor, chemicals and, in many cases, work stoppages.

According to Meticulous Research, the global food automation market is expected to be worth $14.3 billion by 2025. With automation set to explode, it’s important for leaders in the food and beverage industry to take advantage of safety tech innovations to advance sanitation around the processing plant. Facility upgrades to improve, enhance and automate sanitation could impact food manufacturers in the long-term by decreasing costs, preventing recalls, improving brand value, gaining consumer trust, minimizing risk and impacting the bottom line.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Machine Vision Training Tips to Improve Food Inspections

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

As machines become more intelligent, every industry on earth will find abundant new applications and ways to benefit. For the food industry, which has an incredible number of moving parts and is especially risk-averse, machine vision and machine learning are especially valuable additions to the supply chain.

The following is a look at what machine vision is, how it can play a role in manufacturing and distributing foods and beverages, and how employers can train workers to get the most out of this exciting technology.

What Is Machine Vision?

Machine vision isn’t a brand-new concept. Cameras and barcode readers with machine vision have long been capable of reading barcodes and QR codes and verifying that products have correct labels. Modern machine vision takes the concept to new levels of usefulness.

Barcodes and product identifiers have a limited set of known configurations, which makes it relatively straightforward to program an automated inspection station to recognize, sort or reject products as necessary. Instead, true machine vision means handlers don’t have to account for every potential eventuality. Machine vision instead learns over time, based on known parameters, to differentiate between degrees of product damage.

Consider the problem of appraising an apple for its salability. Is it bruised or discolored? Machine vision recognizes that no two bruises look precisely alike. There’s also the matter of identifying different degrees of packaging damage. To tackle these problems, it’s not possible to program machine vision to recognize a fixed set of visual clues. Instead, its programming must interpret its surroundings and make a judgment about what it sees.

Apples, machine vision
On an apple, no two bruises are alike. Machine vision technology can help. Photo credit: Pexels.

The neural networks that power machine vision have a wide range of applications, including improving pathfinding abilities for robots. In this article, I’ll focus on how to leverage machine vision to improve the quality of edible products and the profitability of the food and beverage industry.

Applications for Machine Vision in the Food Industry

There are lots of ways to apply machine vision to a food processing environment, with new variations on the technology cropping up regularly. The following is a rundown on how different kinds of machine vision systems serve different functions in the food and beverage sector.

1. Frame Grabbing and 3-D Machine Vision
Machine vision systems require optimal lighting to carry out successful inspections. If part of the scanning environment lies in shadow, undesirable products might find their way onto shelves and into customers’ homes.

Food products sometimes have unique needs when it comes to carrying out visual inspections. It’s difficult or impossible for fallible human eyeballs to perform detailed scans of thousands of peas or nuts as they pass over a conveyor belt. 3-D machine vision offers a tool called “frame grabbing,” which takes stills of — potentially — tens of thousands of tiny, moving products at once to find flaws and perform sorting.

2. Automated Sorting for Large Product Batches
Machine vision inspection systems can easily become part of a much larger automation effort. Automation is a welcome addition to the food and beverage sector, translating into improved worker safety and efficiency and better quality control across the enterprise.

Inspection stations with machine vision cameras can scan single products or whole batches of products to detect flaws. But physically separating these products must be just as efficient a process as identifying them. For this reason, machine vision is an ideal companion to compressed air systems and others, which can carefully blow away and remove even a single grain of rice from a larger batch in preparation.

3. Near-Infrared Cameras
Machine vision takes many forms, including barcode and QR code readers. A newer technology, called near-infrared (NIR) cameras, is already substantially improving the usefulness and capabilities of machine vision.

Remember that bruised apple? Sometimes physical damage to fruits and vegetables doesn’t immediately appear on the outside. NIR technology expands the light spectrum cameras can observe, giving them the ability to detect interior damage before it shows up on the exterior. It represents a distinct advantage over previous-generation technology and human inspectors, both of which can leave flaws undiscovered.

Tips on Training Workers to Use Machine Vision

Implementing machine vision into a productive environment delivers major benefits, but it also comes with a potentially disruptive learning curve. The following are some ideas on how to navigate it.

1. Take Advantage of Third-Party Training Courses
Don’t expect employees to hit the ground running with machine vision if they’re not familiar with the fundamentals of how it works. Google has a crash course on machine learning, and Amazon offers a curriculum as well to help companies get their employees up to speed on the technology and how to use it.

2. Get the Lighting Right
Having the appropriate intensity of light shining on the food product is essential for the machine vision cameras to get a clear photo or video. The most common types of lighting for machine vision are quartz halogen, LEDs, metal halide and xenon lights. Metal halide and xenon are better for larger-scale operations because of their brightness.

Train employees to check the amount and positioning of the lighting before each inspection station starts up for the day, so that no shadows obscure products from view.

3. Single Out Promising Subject Matter Leaders
Companies today don’t seem to have much confidence in how well they’re preparing their workforce for tomorrow, including future innovations. According to Deloitte, just 47% of companies in the world believe they’re doing enough to train their employees on the technologies and opportunities of Industry 4.0.

Machine vision does not involve buying a camera or two, setting them up, then slapping the “autopilot” button. As products turn over, and manufacturing and distribution environments change and grow over time, machine vision algorithms require re-training, and you might need to redesign the lighting setup.

Employers should find individuals from their ranks who show interest and aptitude in this technology and then invest in them as subject matter experts and process owners. Even if an outside vendor is the one providing libraries of algorithms and ultimately coming up with machine vision designs, every company needs a knowledgeable liaison who can align company needs with the products on the market.

Machine Vision Is the Future of Food Inspections

The market for machine vision technology is likely to reach $30.8 in value by 2021, according to BCC Research.

It is important to remember that neither machine learning nor machine vision are about creating hardware that thinks and sees like humans do. With the right approach, these systems can roundly outperform human employees.

But first, companies need to recognize the opportunities. Then, they must match the available products to their unsolved problems and make sure their culture supports ongoing learning and the discovery of new aptitudes. Machine vision might be superior to human eyesight, but it uses decidedly human judgments as it goes about its work.

Lab grown meat

How Plant-Based Foods Are Changing the Supply Chain

By Maria Fontanazza
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Lab grown meat

The plant-based meat market is anticipated to be worth more than $320 million in the next five years, according to a report released last summer by Global Market Insights. As the popularity of meat-alternative products continues to rise, new challenges are being introduced to supply chain management. Joe Scioscia, vice president of sales at VAI explains some of these hurdles and proposes how technology can help.

Food Safety Tech: Is the growing popularity of plant-based foods introducing hazards or challenges to the supply chain?

Joe Scioscia, VAI
“The growing popularity of plant-based foods has presented a new set of challenges for the supply chain,” says Joe Scioscia of VAI.

Joe Scioscia: The growing popularity of plant-based foods has presented a new set of challenges for the supply chain, especially considering many of these organic items are being introduced by traditionally non-organic retailers. Impossible Foods received FDA approval for its plant-based burger in 2019, showing just how new the plant-based movement is to the industry.

Obviously, the organic supply chain and produce suppliers have long followed regulations for handling produce, such as temperature controls, cargo tracking, and supply and demand planning software, so the produce could be tracked from farm to table and in the case of a recall, be traced back to the source. But for meat alternatives that are combining multiple plant-based ingredients, organizations in the supply chain who are handling these products
have new food safety concerns. Considerations on how to store and process meat alternatives, how to treat each ingredient in the product and, most importantly, how to determine temperature controls or the source of contamination are all discussions the food industry is currently having.

FST: How are plant-based foods changing the dynamic of the supply chain from a food safety perspective?

Scioscia: The food supply chain has changed dramatically in recent years to become more complex, with food items traveling farther than ever before, containing more ingredients and required to follow stricter regulations. Many of the changes to the supply chain are for the better—organic and plant-based alternatives offer health benefits for consumers and are a move towards a more sustainable future. But the reality is that the supply chain isn’t quite there yet. Suppliers, retailers and producers at every part of the supply chain need to work together to ensure transparency and food safety compliance—including for plant-based products. Foodborne illnesses are still a real threat to the safety of consumers, and these same consumers are demanding transparency into the source of their food and sustainable practices from brands. All of these considerations are what’s making this next era of the food industry more complicated than ever before.

Because food safety compliance is always top of mind in the food industry to keep consumers safe, this new and complex supply chain has required companies to rely heavily on technology solutions to ensure plant-based products are equally as safe to consume as non-organic alternatives. These same solutions are also helping supply chains become more transparent for customers and streamline food processes to build a more sustainable future.

FST: What technologies can food companies and retailers use to better manage the supply chain risk while supporting the increased consumer demand for meat alternatives?

Scioscia: Utilizing a centralized software system is one tool many food suppliers and distributors can use to better visualize, trace and process products in the supply chain—including for plant-based alternatives. Having access to a central platform for business data to track assets and ensure food safety regulations are being met allows for companies to optimize processes and cut unnecessary costs along the way.

Heading into 2020, many organizations in the food supply chain are also looking at new applications like IoT, automation, and blockchain as ways to curb food safety issues. The FDA has taken steps to pilot blockchain and AI programs to better track drugs and food products, in conjunction with major food brands and technology companies. Other organizations are following suit with their own programs and many are looking at these solutions to improve their food tracking efforts. It’s clear technology has the most potential to make it easier on the industry to comply with food safety regulations while meeting customer demands for plant-based alternatives and organic options—all the while building a sustainable supply chain for the future.

Checklist

2020 Priorities: Sanitation, Automation and Brand Transparency in Supply Chain

By Maria Fontanazza
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Checklist

In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Eddie Hall, business development director and food safety expert at Vital Vio looks ahead to 2020 and how technology will be impacting food safety, the additional measures that the industry will be taking to protect consumers, and the critical emphasis on sanitation.

Food Safety Tech: What are some of the touch points for food safety innovation in the supply chain in 2020?

Eddie Hall, Vital Vio
Eddie Hall, business development director and food safety expert at Vital Vio

Eddie Hall: When we think of the supply chain, we often imagine food traveling during transportation—by road, rail and air. During transit, our food comes into contact with countless surfaces, hands, tools and bacteria that travels from the farm to the table. However, transit isn’t the only place for germ spread and bacteria growth. When food reaches the factory for processing and packaging, there are opportunities for contact with debris, mold and dust, along with un-sanitized machinery and employees. Not only does this negatively affect the health of our workers, but also the cleanliness and safety of the food that consumers are buying off the shelves. In food manufacturing plants, Zones 1 and 2 are the most obvious for safety innovation in the supply chain, given food is bound to come into contact with tools, conveyor belts, etc. However, processors must consider the touch points in Zones 3 and 4 as well—such as employee break rooms, bathrooms and offices around the plant that foster bacteria. If these areas are not cleaned, food manufacturers have a significantly higher chance of breeding bacteria in food production areas, even if the right protocols are put in place in those zones.

FST: How will the retail sector step up to the consumer demand for safer food?

Hall: Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency around how food ends up on their plate, and prioritizing purchasing from brands that they trust to be safe. Food suppliers are being careful to remove harmful chemicals from the manufacturing process, along with displaying ingredients and supply chain information. For example, Bumble Bee Foods is using blockchain technology for its tuna fish, allowing consumers to access detailed information around the tuna’s origin, authenticity, freshness and sustainability by scanning the QR code on its packaging. Panera Bread has been consistent in offering customers ingredient transparency [by] providing calorie counts on menu items and removing antibiotic-treated animal proteins, as well as vocalizing recent efforts to perform safety audits throughout its supply chain. Not only does tracking technology and clarity meet consumers’ demands, but [it] also helps retailers pinpoint locations of outbreaks, foodborne illness and mislabeling. We’re already seeing retailers step up to meet the growing demand for safer food, but in 2020 we will see an uptick in brand transparency around supply chain information, safety programs and ingredient clarity within restaurants, fast food chains, processing companies and grocery stores.

FST: How will automation play a role in advancing food safety?

Hall: Food processing companies and retailers are implementing remote monitoring technologies that track data and help measure protocol, temperature controls, sanitation, record-keeping and food traceability. Automation can also help advance food safety through methods such as enhance sanitation and sterilization efforts. It is critical for food industry employees to maintain clean environments, but continuously cleaning every hour of every day can become labor-intensive, and sometimes fall off the to-do list. Automated technologies can take on some of these tedious tasks and work in our favor to heighten food safety. For example, Stop and Shop’s new robot, Marty, patrols the aisles to detect food on the floor, torn packaging, empty shelves and more. However, robots aren’t the only place we’re seeing automation in action. Vital Vio has found a way to automate killing bacteria through antimicrobial LED lighting technology, which continuously kills pathogens with the flick of a switch. Automated tech isn’t meant to replace workers, but to enhance their work around cleaning, sanitizing and meeting safety requirements. In 2020, automation is expected to explode and it’s important for leaders in the food and beverage industry to take advantage of safety tech innovations to advance food safety in 2020 and beyond.

FST: How will food companies continue to work towards reducing contamination issues and recalls?

Hall: The U.S. government has stepped in to tackle issues in the food industry by implementing new regulations, such as FSMA. This regulation urges food companies to shift from reactively responding to safety and contamination issues, to proactively working to prevent them. In an effort to reduce recalls, retail giant Walmart recently employed blockchain to track its lettuce supply chains all the way back to the grower. For food companies to reduce contamination, they must also implement more automated sanitation technologies along the supply chain. The most common food contaminants are usually invisible to the naked eye, such as mold, Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli. Sanitation automation tech—such as antimicrobial LED lighting—can continuously kill microscopic bacteria and prevent regrowth, ensuring clean food and equipment. Not only will food companies begin implementing more sanitization technologies, but also focus on other ways, like blockchain traceability, to prevent food recalls and bacteria growth that pose serious health risks to their customers.

FST: Any additional comments?

Hall: Our Dirty Truth report reveals disturbing stats around Americans’ cleaning habits, such as 1 in 4 (27%) do not sanitize their hands after traveling on public transportation. This means that factory or grocery employees that commute to work via bus, train, etc. are bringing bacteria and other germs with them. What’s worse, 1 in 6 Americans get sick and 3,000 die each year from consuming contaminated foods or beverages. This alarming rate can only be improved if we see effort from all sides of the industry—including food processors, manufacturers, workers throughout the supply chain and retailers. Continuous cleaning and sanitation measures can be labor-intensive and sometimes impossible to tackle throughout the day. Luckily, automated technology exists and is expected to address this growing issue of contamination, the spread of bacteria, recalls, and consumer demand for safety and transparency.

Allison Kopf, Artemis

How Technologies for Cultivation Management Help Growers Avoid Food Safety Issues

By Maria Fontanazza
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Allison Kopf, Artemis

Visibility, accountability and traceability are paramount in the agriculture industry, says Allison Kopf, founder and CEO of Artemis. In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Kopf explains how growers can take advantage of cultivation management platforms to better arm them with the tools they need to help prevent food safety issues within their operations and maintain compliance.

Food Safety Tech: What are the key challenges and risks that growers face in managing their operations?

Allison Kopf: One of the easiest challenges for growers to overcome is how they collect and utilize data. I’ve spent my entire career in agriculture, and it’s been painful to watch operations track all of their farm data on clipboards and spreadsheets. By not digitizing processes, growers become bogged down by the process of logging information and sifting through old notebooks for usable insights—if they even choose to do that.

Allison Kopf, Artemis
Allison Kopf is the founder and CEO of Artemis, a cultivation management platform serving the fruit, vegetable, floriculture, cannabis, and hemp industries. She is also is an investment partner at XFactor Ventures and serves on the boards of Cornell University’s Controlled Environment Agriculture program and Santa Clara University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

I was visiting a farm the other day and the grower pulled out a big binder. The binder contained all of his standard operating procedures and growing specifications for the varieties he’s grown over the past 20 years. Then he pulled out a pile of black notebooks. If you’ve ever worked on a farm, you’d recognize grower notebooks anywhere. They’re used to log data points such as yield, quality and notes on production. These notebooks sit in filing cabinets with the hopeful promise of becoming useful at some point in the future—to stop production from falling into the same pitfalls or to mirror successful outcomes. However, in reality, the notebooks never see the light of day again. The grower talked about the pain of this process—when he goes on vacation, no one can fill his shoes; when he retires, so does the information in his head; when auditors come in, they’ll have to duplicate work to create proper documentation; and worse, it’s impossible to determine what resources are needed proactively based on anything other than gut. Here’s the bigger issue: All of the solutions are there; they’re just filed away in notebooks sitting in the filing cabinet.

Labor is the number one expense for commercial growing operations. Unless you’re a data analyst and don’t have the full-time responsibilities of managing a complex growing operation, spreadsheets and notebooks won’t give you the details needed to figure out when and where you’re over- or under-staffing. Guessing labor needs day-to-day is horribly inefficient and expensive.

Another challenge is managing food safety and compliance. Food contamination remains a huge issue within the agriculture industry. E. coli, Listeria and other outbreaks (usually linked to leafy greens, berries and other specialty crops) happen regularly. If crops are not tracked, it can take months to follow the contamination up the chain to its source. Once identified, growers might have to destroy entire batches of crops rather than the specific culprit if they don’t have appropriate tracking methods in place. This is a time-consuming and expensive waste.

Existing solutions that growers use like ERPs are great for tracking payroll, billing, inventory, logistics, etc., but the downside is that they’re expensive, difficult to implement, and most importantly aren’t specific to the agriculture industry. The result is that growers can manage some data digitally, but not everything, and certainly not in one place. This is where a cultivation management platform (CMP) comes into play.

FST: How are technologies helping address these issues?

Kopf: More and more solutions are coming online to enable commercial growers to detect, prevent and trace food safety issues, and stay compliant with regulations. The key is making sure growers are not just tracking data but also ensuring the data becomes accessible and functional. A CMP can offer growers what ERPs and other farm management software can’t: Detailed and complete visibility of operations, labor accountability and crop traceability.

A CMP enables better product safety by keeping crop data easily traceable across the supply chain. Rather than having to destroy entire batches in the event of contamination, growers can simply trace it to the source and pinpoint the problem. A CMP greatly decreases the time it takes to log food safety data, which also helps growers’ bottom line.

CMPs also help growers manage regulatory compliance. This is true within the food industry as well as the cannabis industry. Regulations surrounding legal pesticides are changing all the time. It’s difficult keeping up with constantly shifting regulatory environment. In cannabis this is especially true. By keeping crops easily traceable, growers can seamlessly manage standard operating procedures across the operation (GAP, HACCP, SQF, FSMA, etc.) and streamline audits of all their permits, licenses, records and logs, which can be digitized and organized in one place.

FST: Where is the future headed regarding the use of technology that generates actionable data for growers? How is this changing the game in sustainability?

Kopf: Technology such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things are changing just about every industry. This is true of agriculture as well. Some of these changes are already happening: Farmers use autonomous tractors, drones to monitor crops, and AI to optimize water usage.

As the agriculture industry becomes more connected, the more growers will be able to access meaningful and actionable information. Plugging into this data will be the key for growers who want to stay profitable. These technologies will give them up-to-the-second information about the health of their crops, but will also drive their pest, labor, and risk & compliance management strategies, all of which affect food safety.

When growers optimize their operations and production for profitability, naturally they are able to optimize for sustainability as well. More gain from fewer resources. It costs its customers less money, time and hassle to run their farms and it costs the planet less of its resources.

Technology innovation, including CMPs, enable cultivation that will provide food for a growing population despite decreasing resources. Technology that works both with outdoor and greenhouse growing operations will help fight food scarcity by keeping crops growing in areas where they might not be able to grow naturally. It also keeps production efficient, driving productivity as higher yields will be necessary.

Beyond scarcity, traceability capabilities enforce food security which is arguable the largest public health concern across the agricultural supply chain. More than 3,000 people die every year due to foodborne illness. By making a safer, traceable supply chain, new technology that enables growers to leverage their data will protect human life.

Data protection, security

The Digital Transformation of Global Food Security

By Katie Evans
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Data protection, security

Modern food supply chains are inherently complex, with products typically passing through multiple suppliers and distributors, as well as countries and continents, before they end up on the supermarket shelf. While global supply chains offer consumers greater choice and convenience, they also make protecting the security of food products more challenging. With additional stakeholders between farm and fork, products are exposed to an elevated risk of biological or chemical contamination, as well as food counterfeiting and adulteration challenges—potentially putting consumer health and brand reputation in jeopardy.

Given the importance of maintaining the safety, quality and provenance of food products, global regulatory bodies are placing the integrity of supply chains under increased scrutiny. In the United States, for example, the adoption of FSMA moved the focus from responding to foodborne illnesses to preventing them by prioritizing comprehensive food testing measures, enforcing inspections and checks, and enabling authorities to react appropriately to safety issues through fines, recalls or permit suspensions.1 Similarly, China’s revised Food Safety Law (known as FSL 2015) is widely considered to be the strictest in the country’s history, and seeks to drive up quality standards by empowering regulators, and enhancing traceability and accountability through robust record-keeping. 2 The European Union continues to closely regulate and monitor food safety through its General Food Law, which is independently overseen by the European Food Safety Authority from a scientific perspective.

Achieving the Highest Standards of Food Security, Integrity and Traceability

For producers, manufacturers and distributors, the heightened regulatory focus on the security and integrity of the food supply chain has placed additional emphasis on accurate record-keeping, transparent accountability and end-to-end traceability. To meet the needs of the modern regulatory landscape, food chain stakeholders require robust systems and tools to manage their quality control (QC), environmental monitoring and chain of custody data. Despite this, many businesses still handle this information using paper-based approaches or localized spreadsheets, which can compromise operational efficiency and regulatory compliance.

The fundamental flaw of these traditional data management approaches is their reliance on manual data entry and transcription steps, leaving information vulnerable to human error. To ensure the accuracy of data, some companies implement resource-intensive verification or review checks. However, these steps inevitably extend workflows and delay decision-making, ultimately holding up the release of products at a high cost to businesses. Moreover, as paper and spreadsheet-based data management systems must be updated by hand, they often serve merely as a record of past events and are unable to provide insight into ongoing activities. The time lag associated with recording and accessing supply chain information means that vital insight is typically unavailable until the end of a process, and data cannot be used to optimize operations in real-time.

Furthermore, using traditional data management approaches, gathering information in the event of an audit or food safety incident can be extremely challenging. Trawling through paperwork or requesting information contained in spreadsheets saved on local computers is time-consuming and resource-intensive. When it comes to establishing accountability for actions, these systems are often unable to provide a complete audit trail of events.

Digital Solutions Transform Food Security and Compliance

Given the limitations of traditional workflows, food supply chain stakeholders are increasingly seeking more robust data management solutions that will allow them to drive efficiency, while meeting the latest regulatory expectations. For many businesses, laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are proving to be a highly effective solution for collecting, storing and sharing their QC, environmental monitoring and chain of custody data.

One of the most significant advantages of managing data using LIMS is the way in which they bring together people, instruments, workflows and data in a single integrated system. When it comes to managing the receipt of raw materials, for example, LIMS can improve overall workflow visibility, and help to make processes faster and more efficient. By using barcodes, radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags or near-field communication, samples can be tracked by the system throughout various laboratory and storage locations. With LIMS tracking samples at every stage, ingredients and other materials can be automatically released into production as soon as the QC results have been authorized, streamlining processes and eliminating costly delays.

By storing the standard operating procedures (SOPs) used for raw material testing or QC centrally in a LIMS, worklists, protocols and instrument methods can be automatically downloaded directly to equipment. In this way, LIMS are able to eliminate time-consuming data entry steps, reducing the potential for human error and improving data integrity. When integrated with laboratory execution systems (LES), these solutions can even guide operators step-by-step through procedures, ensuring SOPs are executed consistently, and in a regulatory compliant manner. Not only can these integrated solutions improve the reliability and consistency of data by making sure tests are performed in a standardized way across multiple sites and testing teams, they can also boost operational efficiency by simplifying set-up procedures and accelerating the delivery of results. What’s more, because LIMS can provide a detailed audit trail of all user interactions within the system, this centralized approach to data management is a robust way of ensuring full traceability and accountability.

This high level of operational efficiency and usability also extends to the way in which data is processed, analyzed and reported. LIMS platforms can support multi-level parameter review and can rapidly perform calculations and check results against specifications for relevant customers. In this way, LIMS can ensure pathogens, pesticides and veterinary drug residues are within specifications for specific markets. With all data stored centrally, certificates of analysis can be automatically delivered to enterprise resource planning (ERP) software or process information management systems (PIMS) to facilitate rapid decision-making and batch release. Furthermore, the sophisticated data analysis tools built into the most advanced LIMS software enable users to monitor the way in which instruments are used and how they are performing, helping businesses to manage their assets more efficiently. Using predictive algorithms to warn users when principal QC instruments are showing early signs of deterioration, the latest LIMS can help companies take preventative action before small issues turn into much bigger problems. As a result, these powerful tools can help to reduce unplanned maintenance, keep supply chains moving, and better maintain the quality and integrity of goods.

While LIMS are very effective at building more resilient supply chains and preventing food security issues, they also make responding to potential threats much faster, easier and more efficient. With real-time access to QC, environmental monitoring and chain of custody data, food contamination or adulteration issues can be detected early, triggering the prompt isolation of affected batches before they are released. And in the event of a recall or audit, batch traceability in modern LIMS enables the rapid retrieval of relevant results and metadata associated with suspect products through all stages of production. This allows the determination of affected batches and swift action to be taken, which can be instrumental in protecting consumer safety as well as brand value.

Using LIMS to Protect Security and Integrity of the Food Supply Chain

Increasingly, LIMS are helping businesses transform food security by bringing people, instruments and workflows into a single integrated system. By simplifying and automating processes, providing end-to-end visibility across the food supply chain, and protecting the integrity of data at every stage, these robust digital solutions are not only helping food supply chain stakeholders to ensure full compliance with the latest regulations; they are enabling businesses to operate more efficiently, too.

References

  1. FDA. (2011). FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Accessed October 3, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-safety-modernization-act-fsma/full-text-food-safety-modernization-act-fsma.
  2. Balzano, J. (2015). “Revised Food Safety Law In China Signals Many Changes And Some Surprises”. Forbes. Accessed October 3, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnbalzano/2015/05/03/revised-food-safety-law-in-china-signals-many-changes-and-some-surprises/#624b72db6e59.