Tag Archives: automation

Nicole Lang, igus
Retail Food Safety Forum

Robots Serve Up Safety in Restaurants

By Nicole Lang
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Nicole Lang, igus

Perhaps the top takeaway from the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is that people the world over realize how easily viruses can spread. Even with social distancing, masks and zealous, frequent handwashing, everyone has learned contagions can cycle through the atmosphere and put a person at risk of serious, and sometimes deadly, health complications. In reality, there are no safe spaces when proper protocols are not followed.

The primary culprit in transmission of norovirus, according to the CDC, is contaminated food. “The virus can easily contaminate food because it is very tiny and spreads easily,” the CDC says in a fact sheet for food workers posted on its website. “It only takes a very small amount of virus to make someone sick.”

The CDC numbers are alarming. The agency reports about 20 million people get sick from norovirus each year, most from close contact with infected people or by eating contaminated food. Norovirus is the leading cause of disease outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States, and infected food workers cause about 70% of reported norovirus outbreaks from contaminated food.

The solution to reducing the transmission of unhealthy particles could be starting to take shape through automation. While robots have been used for the past few years in food manufacturing and processing, new solutions take food handling to a new level. Robots are no longer in the back of the house in the food industry, isolated in packaging and manufacturing plants. They are now front and center. The next time you see a salad prepared for you at a favorite haunt, you may be watching a robot.

“The global pandemic has altered the way that we eat,” said Justin Rooney, of Dexai Robotics, a company that developed a food service robotic device. Reducing human contact with food via hands-free ordering and autonomous food serving capabilities has the potential to reduce the spread of pathogens and viruses, and could help keep food fresh for a longer period of time.

Painful Pandemic

Increased use of automation in the foodservice industry might be one of the salvations of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an industry searching for good news, that might be the silver lining in an otherwise gloomful crisis.

Job losses in the restaurant industry have been brutal. By the end of November, nearly 110,000 restaurants in the United States had closed. A report by the National Restaurant Association said restaurants lost three times more jobs than any other industry since the beginning of the pandemic. In December, reports said nearly 17% of U.S. restaurants had closed. Some restaurants clung to life by offering outdoor dining, but as winter set in, that option evaporated. Some governors even demanded restaurant closures as the pandemic escalated in late fall.

Restaurants have faced a chronic labor shortage for years. Despite layoffs during the pandemic, many former foodservice employees are electing to leave the industry.

Teenagers, for instance, and some older workers are staying away for health and safety reasons. Some former workers are also finding out that they can make more money on unemployment benefits than by returning to work. Restaurant chains have hiked wages, but filling positions still remains a challenge.

Automated Solutions

Restaurants began dancing with the idea of robots nearly 50 years ago. The trend started slowly, with customers ordering food directly through kiosks. As of 2011, McDonald’s installed nearly 7,000 touchscreen kiosks to handle cashiering responsibilities at restaurants throughout Europe.

As technology has advanced, so has the presence of robots in restaurants. In 2019 Seattle-based Picnic unveiled a robot that can prepare 300 pizzas in an hour. In January, Nala Robotics announced it would open the world’s first “intelligent” restaurant. The robotic kitchen can create dishes from any cuisine in the world. The kitchen, which is expected to open in April in Naperville, Illinois, will have the capability to create an endless variety of cuisine without potential contamination from human contact.

Dexai designed a new robotic unit that allows for hands-free ordering that can be placed through any device with an Internet connection. The robot also includes a new subsystem for utensils, which are stored in a food bin to keep them temperature controlled. This ensures that robot is compliant with ServSafe regulations. The company is working on improving robot system’s reliability, robustness, safety and user friendliness. The robot has two areas to hold tools, a kitchen display system, bowl passing arm, an enclosure for electronics and two refrigeration units. It has the unique ability to swap utensils to comply with food service standards and prevent contamination as a result of allergens, for example.

Why Automation

Many industries have been impacted by advancements in automation, and the foodservice industry is no different. While initially expensive, the benefits over time can provide to be worth the investment.

One of the most significant advantages, particularly important in the post-COVID era, is better quality control. Automated units can detect issues much earlier in the supply chain, and address those issues.

Automation can also help improve worker safety by executing some of the more repetitive and dangerous tasks. Robots can also boost efficiency (i.e., a robot used for making pizza that can press out dough five times faster than humans and place them into ovens) and eliminate the risk of injury. Robots are also being used to make coffee, manage orders and billing, and prepare the food. Robots can also collect data that will help foodservice owners regarding output, quantity, speed and other factors.

“Alfred’s actions are powered by artificial intelligence,” according to Rooney. “Each time Alfred performs an action, the associated data gets fed into a machine learning model. Consequently, each individual Alfred learns from the accumulated success and failures of every other Alfred that has existed.” Dexai plans to teach the robot to operate other commonly found pieces of kitchen equipment such as grills, fryers, espresso machines, ice cream cabinets and smoothie makers.

Unrelenting Trend

Automated solutions might have come along too late to save many restaurants, but the path forward is clear. While they are not yet everywhere, robots are now in play at significant number of restaurants, and there is no turning back. Any way you slice it, robots in restaurants, clearly, is an idea whose time has come.

Niels Andersen, ThinkIQ
FST Soapbox

Supply Chain Visibility and Transparency a Key Element of Change in 2021

By Niels Andersen
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Niels Andersen, ThinkIQ

It is safe to say that 2020 was a year unlike any other. The COVID-19 pandemic brought on significant changes to everyday life across the world. It also brought some significant challenges to businesses from retail, to restaurants and manufacturing. The supply chain industry faced a challenge like no other when shutdowns began and manufacturers were left scrambling to come up with a backup plan. Although these challenges were tough to handle, it gave the industry a much-needed eye opening to make the changes needed in order to avoid this from happening again.

The food manufacturing industry was hit particularly hard and required some intervention from the U.S. government. In order to protect food plant workers, the FDA and OSHA jointly issued a 16-page checklist for use by owners and operators of food production companies in mid-August. While it did not list any new regulations, it pulled existing guidance from the FDA, CDC, and OSHA. The main focus was on employee health and food safety. The main concern was offering guidance on how to deal with resuming operations, protecting healthy workers, as well as for dealing with sick employees and those exposed to them. One of the struggles we have is that the guidelines relate to how workers behave inside a plant.

These guidelines were just the tip of the iceberg as it forced the industry to take a deeper look into two main areas: Supply chain robustness, visibility and transparency, and traceability. Highly optimized modern supply chains depend on a high degree of predictability from all actors in the chain; they are lean in order to minimize costs and working capital.

Unfortunately, this optimization has made supply chains brittle—the models did not anticipate COVID-19 and the unexpected complexity that followed. Moving forward, manufacturers need to take a closer look at how this happened.

The traditional way to increase robustness in a supply chain is to increase inventory buffers so that any breakdowns can be smoothed out over time. Inventory buffers are expensive, tie up working capital, and increase risks, because a manufacturer may not be able to sell what they have in inventory. A more modern approach is to make supply chains more agile, so changes can be implemented quickly in case the unexpected happens. Agility requires visibility and transparency in order to understand what’s happening. The struggle in manufacturing is that agility must be combined with repeatability so that quality products can be created in a cost-effective way on a large scale. Repeatability also requires visibility and transparency. A famous quote from Lord Kelvin says, “you cannot improve what you cannot measure”. This rings as true today as it did more than 100 years ago. Another key element is repeatability to ensure that the manufacturing resources produce the requested production orders. This is why it is so important to provide transparency in what is going on in your supply chain to ensure processes are stable and repeatable.

The pandemic has brought a renewed focus for manufacturers in making sure they are becoming more transparent and agile within their supply chain processes. They are realizing thanks to this disruption that suppliers can’t always deliver and a backup plan is crucial to keep things moving. One option is to implement technology that helps track visibility and transparency to better assess what is needed and to offer alternative suppliers. Having supply chain transparency requires companies to know what is happening upstream in the supply chain and communicate this knowledge both internally and externally.

Automation Can Help with Supply Chain Visibility

Automation has wrongly been perceived as just a way to kill jobs. At the same time, the idea of “bringing manufacturing back to the United States” is less about bringing jobs back and more about adding value creation. For manufacturers to be effective today, they must automate. It’s not just about being efficient, it’s about enabling manufacturers to scale up with precision. Most importantly, it’s about survival. In order for manufacturers to survive, they need to automate. This is driving a much higher demand in sensors which play an essential role in automation.

Automation systems are unbiased, and don’t have bad day. This means manufacturers can operate with high levels of repeatability and precision. Without this level of automated precision, we would not be able to enjoy many of modern life’s necessities like the car you drive or the cell phone in your pocket.

Additionally, automation reduces errors, increases the efficiency of the labor, and results in higher output with lower labor costs. This helps manufacturers reduce waste, increase sustainability, lower their carbon footprint, and reduce their energy dependency.

2020 prompted many necessary changes to the food manufacturing industry and their interaction with suppliers. It is true that a crisis spurs innovation. The pandemic has forced manufacturers to think differently about how they are conducting business. One thing will be critical to move forward: The ability to have better visibility of your supply chain. Adding visibility, transparency and collaboration tools are going to bring on lasting changes that are to manage a disruption such as a future pandemic.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Four Influential Technologies Changing Food Manufacturing

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

Some impressive technologies are not only impacting the food industry right now but will also have a huge impact in the future. As their use grows to be more prevalent, the industry will change to be smarter and more efficient, with continued improvements across the board.

1. AI and Advanced Robotics

While artificial intelligence and advanced robotics are two distinct technologies, they are frequently paired together. AI, and the data it digests, is used to command robots, allowing them to be more precise, more intelligent and more aware.

Most robots on their own are capable of completing only repetitive and clearly defined tasks. Throw something unique into the mix and they’ll either fumble or fail. However, when governed by data-based intelligence solutions like AI or machine learning, those robots become something incredibly advanced.

In the food industry, machinery and robots are leveraged to improve operations, further maintaining quality and efficiency, at affordable costs. They often work alongside human laborers to augment or enhance processes. They come with several unexpected benefits as well, such as much-improved safety for workers, faster and higher product output and consistent, reliable quality.

For example, JBS, one of the world’s largest meatpacking firms, deployed robotic butchers within its plants. The robots were used to slice more challenging meats, which reduced workplace injuries.

2. Automation

Automation stands alongside AI and advanced robotics, even incorporating those technologies to create a streamlined system. As of 2017, 73% of surveyed companies in the food and beverage manufacturing industry either had or were in the process of establishing automation within their facilities.

Many systems are designed to replace or enhance repetitive tasks, boosting their speed and accuracy, to significantly improve output, without incurring a loss in quality. It’s not just about hardware, like swapping a human laborer for a robot. It’s also achieved through software. Think supply chain management solutions that help plan for various events and experiences without human input.

When many of these technologies are used side-by-side, it strengthens their application and usability. As is true of advanced robotics, for example, AI can also be used to create more intelligent automation platforms. Instead of carrying out rote or simple tasks, they can be programmed to react and engage through any number of parameters. The system might slow production, for instance, based on a decrease in product demand. Or, it might swap to an alternate component or ingredient because of a shortage somewhere.

With the right controls and support, automation technologies are game-changing. With the global population growing and demands increasing more with each year, food manufacturers will look to streamline their operations and boost output in any way possible, and automation will be a go-to.

3. Digital Twins

Digital twins in food manufacturing are essentially simulated copies or a virtual representation of a physical system. That definition might seem confusing, but think of it as a clone that can be manipulated for testing and analytics.In other words, it is a twin of the actual system and information, in every sense of the word, albeit one that is more versatile and less vulnerable. It allows manufacturers and distributors to run simulations by feeding specific information into the system to identify patterns, recognize outcomes and much more.

As the systems and controls supporting the field become smarter and more digitized, digital twins in food manufacturing will find their way into product development, testing, post-production, distribution and nearly every other facet of the industry. It will become an integral component to not only understand what’s happening in the market but also for keeping up with the ebb and flow of supply and demand.

4. Blockchain

Even well before the pandemic, people had become much more conscious about the foods they consume. They want to know the origin of their goods and whether they’ve been sourced using safe, healthy and environmentally friendly methods. The problem with such demands is that, until recently, there haven’t been many solutions for increased visibility within the food supply chain.

Growing concerns for health are now a priority, and visibility is an absolute must. Blockchain technology is the answer, providing precisely the kind of visibility, efficiency, controls and collaboration that consumers want.

With this food manufacturing technology in place, someone could trace a head of lettuce back to its initial seeding. They can see who grew the plants and where, and which methods they used to mature the crop. Then, they can follow its journey to the store shelf.

How is such a thing possible? It all has to do with the technology. In its simplest form, Blockchain is a digital ledger or complete and digitized record of a particular data set. The data that goes in is added to something called a block, and as more is added, it is tacked on to the end of that block to create a long, linked record. Every bit of information is visible across the entire chain, hence the name blockchain.

Walmart is using the technology to track potential food contamination outbreaks. It empowers them to not just find the source but also find the many branches involved — like where goods might have been shipped and who may have purchased them.

Food Manufacturing Technology for the Future

While each food manufacturing technology discussed here is incredibly influential and will have a direct impact on the future of the industry, they are not the only solutions making waves. Some additional examples include:

  • Drones and automated delivery vehicles
  • 3-D printing for edible goods
  • Smart or precision agriculture
  • High-tech packaging
  • Smarter waste disposal and recycling

The takeaway is that technology is vastly improving the operational efficiency of the food supply chain, from farmers and manufacturers to the retail stores featuring goods on their shelves. There’s no right or wrong buy-in, as any one of these technologies can be used to streamline separate processes. The biggest challenge will be deciding what to upgrade first, especially when it comes to delivering high-quality, fresh goods in a prompt manner.

Summer of 2020: Hot Topics Include FDA Inspections, Records Retention, and New Technology Era

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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10

Is Food-Grade always Food-Safe?

9

Important Restaurant Food Storage Safety Tips You Need to Know

8

How a History of Slow Technology Adoption Across Food Supply Chains Nearly Broke Us

7

FDA Unveils Blueprint for New Era of Smarter Food Safety

6

FDA, CDC Investigating Multistate Cyclospora Outbreak Involving Bagged Salads

5

COVID-19 Leads Food Companies and Meat Processors to Explore AI and Robotics, Emphasize Sanitation, and Work from Home

4

FDA Announces Inspections Will Resume…Sort Of

3

Sustainability Strategies for the Food Industry

2

Top Three Visibility Challenges in Today’s Food Supply Chain

1

The COVID-19 Record Retention Conundrum

Manuel Orozco, AIB International
FST Soapbox

Detecting Foreign Material Will Protect Your Customers and Brand

By Manuel Orozco
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Manuel Orozco, AIB International

During the production process, physical hazards can contaminate food products, making them unfit for human consumption. According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the leading cause of food recalls is foreign material contamination. This includes 20 of the top 50, and three of the top five, largest food recalls issued in 2019.

As methods for detecting foreign materials in food have improved over time, you might think that associated recalls should be declining. To the contrary, USDA FSIS and FDA recalls due to foreign material seem to be increasing. During the entire calendar year of 2018, 28 of the 382 food recalls (7.3%) in the USDA’s recall case archive were for foreign material contamination. Through 2019, this figure increased to approximately 50 of the 337 food recalls (14.8%). Each of these recalls may have had a significant negative impact on those brands and their customers, which makes foreign material detection a crucial component of any food safety system.

The FDA notes, “hard or sharp foreign materials found in food may cause traumatic injury, including laceration and perforation of tissues of the mouth, tongue, throat, stomach and intestine, as well as damage to the teeth and gums”. Metal, plastic and glass are by far the most common types of foreign materials. There are many ways foreign materials can be introduced into a product, including raw materials, employee error, maintenance and cleaning procedures, and equipment malfunction or breakage during the manufacturing and packaging processes.

The increasing use of automation and machinery to perform tasks that were once done by hand are likely driving increases in foreign matter contamination. In addition, improved manufacturer capabilities to detect particles in food could be triggering these recalls, as most of the recalls have been voluntary by the manufacturer.

To prevent foreign material recalls, it is key to first prevent foreign materials in food production facilities. A proper food safety/ HACCP plan should be introduced to prevent these contaminants from ending up in the finished food product through prevention, detection and investigation.
Food manufacturers also have a variety of options when it comes to the detection of foreign objects from entering food on production lines. In addition to metal detectors, x-ray systems, optical sorting and camera-based systems, novel methods such as infrared multi-wavelength imaging and nuclear magnetic resonance are in development to resolve the problem of detection of similar foreign materials in a complex background. Such systems are commonly identified as CCPs (Critical Control Points)/preventive controls within our food safety plans.

But what factors should you focus on when deciding between different inspection systems? Product type, flow characteristics, particle size, density and blended components are important factors in foreign material detection. Typically, food manufacturers use metal and/or x-ray inspection for foreign material detection in food production as their CCP/preventive control. While both technologies are commonly used, there are reasons why x-ray inspection is becoming more popular. Foreign objects can vary in size and material, so a detection method like an x-ray that is based on density often provides the best performance.

Regardless of which detection system you choose, keep in mind that FSMA gives FDA the power to scientifically evaluate food safety programs and preventive controls implemented in a food production facility, so validation and verification are crucial elements of any detection system.

It is also important to remember that a key element of any validation system is the equipment validation process. This process ensures that your equipment operates properly and is appropriate for its intended use. This process consists of three steps: Installation qualification, operational qualification and performance qualification.

Installation qualification is the first step of the equipment validation process, designed to ensure that the instrument is properly installed, in a suitable environment free from interference. This process takes into consideration the necessary electrical requirements such as voltage and frequency ratings, as well as other factors related with the environment, such as temperature and humidity. These requirements are generally established by the manufacturer and can be found within the installation manual.

The second step is operational qualification. This ensures that the equipment will operate according to its technical specification. In order to achieve this, the general functions of the equipment must be tested within the specified range limits. Therefore, this step focuses on the overall functionality of the instrument.

The third and last step is the performance qualification, which is focused on providing documented evidence through specific tests that the instrument will performs according to the routine specifications. These requirements could be established by internal and industry standards.

Following these three steps will allow you to provide documented evidence that the equipment will perform adequately within the work environment and for the intended process. After completion of the equipment validation process, monitoring and verification procedures must be established to guarantee the correct operation of the instrument, as well procedures to address deviations and recordkeeping. This will help you effectively control the hazards identified within our operation.

There can be massive consequences if products contaminated with foreign material are purchased and consumed by the public. That’s why the development and implementation of a strong food safety/ HACCP plan, coupled with the selection and validation of your detection equipment, are so important. These steps are each key elements in protecting your customers and your brand.

Daniel Erickson, ProcessPro
FST Soapbox

Recall Risk Reduction: An ERP’s Role

By Daniel Erickson
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Daniel Erickson, ProcessPro

Consumer safety is of paramount importance and product recalls are a necessary means to this end. Product recalls are a serious, complex, and costly issue affecting the food and beverage industry in the United States. The FDA estimates that there are around 48 million cases of foodborne illness each year—causing one in six Americans to get sick from contaminated food. In addition to affecting public health, recalls have a dramatic effect on manufacturers by creating economic problems, damaging a company’s reputation, and imposing potential legal penalties and liabilities. In the search for a business management solution to better prepare themselves for and reduce the risk of recalls in their operations, many food manufacturers have discovered that technology, specifically ERP software, is key to lowering the risk of food and beverage product recalls.

An industry-specific ERP solution is a centralized business system with key industry features providing a system of record-keeping, with the tools to support the preparation and reduction of recall risks. While a manufacturer is ultimately responsible for a product recall, an ERP solution is essential in supporting and championing overall recall readiness and reduction. With the streamlined and automated inventory, manufacturing, and quality control processes managed within the software, critical steps and data that assist in recall mitigation are documented—including supplier verification records, audit logs, receipt records, quality testing, lot tracking, and shipment logs. The key to prevention of a product recall is preparation, which can be handled efficiently through an ERP’s functionality specifically in the following areas.

Supplier Management

An ERP facilitates best practices for supplier management and risk assessment within the solution to assure the acquisition of quality raw materials from trusted vendors. Its role is to maintain an approved supplier list for each product ingredient, documenting detailed supplier information, quality control test results, and risk level to ensure in-house and customer-specific standards are met. For approved or activated suppliers, information regarding materials that can be purchased through the vendor, applicable certifications, quality control results, and other pertinent supplier information is stored within the centralized data system of the ERP. A risk assessment for each vendor is also documented to ensure that any potential inherent risk(s) from vendor-issued recalls and to finished goods are limited.

In addition to activated suppliers, an ERP solution also assigns and manages qualified alternates to provide vetted selections should a primary supplier’s materials become unavailable. This positions a company well in the supply chain, as the investigative work has already been conducted on other suppliers, limiting the need and risk associated with onboarding an unknown supplier in a moment of crisis. Vendors are recorded within the system and ranked in order of preference and/or risk level so that they can be identified and put into use quickly if a supplier becomes unavailable—providing the preparation and leverage that companies need to mitigate the risk to safety in the supply chain. In a product recall situation, when a supplier notifies a customer of a contaminated ingredient, the supplier management feature within the ERP solution provides for a qualified replacement vendor that can fulfill the needed raw material quickly and efficiently.

Inventory Control

An ERP system offers end-to-end traceability, maintaining a comprehensive record that tracks raw ingredients, work-in-progress, and final products throughout the supply chain using barcode scanning to link product and lot information to batch tickets, QC testing results, shipping documents, and labels. This full forward and backward lot traceability is necessary to provide a documented audit trail imperative to locating raw materials or finished goods quickly within the initial 24-hour time period of a product recall. With full manufacturing, inventory, and reporting integrations, the ERP supports sound manufacturing practices that assist with recall preparedness – maintaining current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), FDA reporting, GFSI compliance, and other industry-specific regulations to provide a documented audit trail with the ability to adapt as compliance requirements change.

Managing protocols to ensure the quality of inbound and outbound materials is essential in minimizing recall risk across the entire supply chain—from raw materials to the delivered final product. With an industry-specific ERP solution, formulas, recipes and instructions are maintained, scaled and verified to ensure consistency of products within the manufacturing process. This instills preventative measures throughout the production cycle in the form of process steps and quality control test specifications to bolster safety and quality. Quality features such as quarantine status and other status capabilities permit the isolating, removing and disposing of raw ingredients and finished goods that fail to meet quality control standards—triggering an alert to notify the purchasing department to investigate the issue. Having the ability to remove ingredients and finished goods from inventory or production prevents contaminated items from reaching store shelves and consumers, which reduces overall recall risk.

Inventory control practices are an important part of the functionality within an ERP solution that help to reduce overall recall risk. This includes managing and reporting of shelf life and expiration dates to maintain precise and lean control of inventory and reduce variances. Automated inventory transactions with the use of an ERP’s warehouse management solution (WMS) follow industry best practices and improve efficiency to ensure the accuracy of shipments, transfers, and material returns. This real-time visibility allows for the maintenance of FIFO inventory practices necessary to reduce the risk of spoilage.

One of the leading causes of contamination for food and beverage manufacturers that results in a recall event is a lack of allergen control throughout the supply chain and production process. An ERP system helps to track, manage and record the handling, storage and batch steps of raw materials from farm-to-fork. This includes stringent sanitary practices, lot tracking, raw material segregation and process controls to avoid allergen contamination or cross-contamination. Accurate product labeling is also a significant factor in reducing risk and an automated system that generates nutritional and product package labels plays a key role in a company’s recall prevention. To meet the needs of consumers and regulators, an ERP solution automates label creation to include accurate ingredient and allergen statements, nutrient analysis, expiration dates, lot and batch numbers, and regulatory specifications. The labeling history documented in the software allows products to be identified and located quickly in the event of a recall.

Reporting

Utilizing the recall functionality in the ERP solution allows companies to plan and test their recall process in advance. Performing mock recalls permits regular measurement and improvement of procedures to ensure rapid, accurate, and thorough responses by all company stakeholders in the event of a recall. A successful simulated exercise identifies 100% of recalled ingredients/products and notifies appropriate entities in a timely manner. Evaluation and documentation of mock recall exercises help expose inefficiencies, process gaps and procedural adjustments, which are designed to improve recall readiness and minimize consumer exposure to potentially dangerous contaminants.

As proof or documentation of adherence to specific processes, reporting is essential to demonstrate that these processes have been completed—without it, an integral component is missing. Across the supply chain and throughout the manufacturing process, documentation and reporting accentuate steps that have been taken to prepare and reduce recall risk. Risk-based assessments in supplier management, lot traceability reports, and mock recall reporting all provide a starting point of analysis to allow for adjustments to be made across the business. In a recall situation, the system is able to create lot tracking reports that encompass raw ingredients through shipped finished goods. These reports can be produced in minutes, rather than the hours it takes if data is stored within separate software programs.

Due to the amount of time and money that food and beverage companies invest in getting their products to market, it is imperative that preventative measures are taken in order to avoid a product recall. Forward-thinking manufacturers can help prepare for and reduce recall risks by utilizing several important features in ERP software—including supplier management, inventory control, and reporting. Using the tools at their disposal, a company can mitigate liabilities and protect their brand to turn a potential crisis into a future filled with opportunities.

Are Traasdahl, Crisp
FST Soapbox

How a History of Slow Technology Adoption Across Food Supply Chains Nearly Broke Us

By Are Traasdahl
1 Comment
Are Traasdahl, Crisp

The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing disconnects between food supply and demand. While some may be noticing these issues on a broader scale for the first time, the reality is that there have been challenges in our food supply chains for decades. A lack of accurate data and information sharing is the core of the problem and had greater impact due to the pandemic. Outdated technologies are preventing advancements and efficiencies, resulting in the paradox of mounting food insecurity and food waste.

To bridge this disconnect, the food industry needs to implement innovative AI and machine learning technologies to prevent shortages, overages and waste as COVID-19 subsides. Solutions that enable data sharing and collaboration are essential to build more resilient food supply chains for the future.

Data-sharing technologies that can help alleviate these problems have been under development for decades, but food supply chains have been slow to innovate compared to other industries. By reviewing the top four data-sharing technologies used in food industry and the year they were introduced to food supply chains, it’s evident that the pace of technology innovation and adoption needs to accelerate to advance the industry.

A History of Technology Adoption in the Food Industry

The Barcode – 19741
We’re all familiar with the barcode—that assemblage of lines translated into numbers and letters conveying information about a product. When a cashier scans a barcode, the correct price pops up on the POS, and the sale data is recorded for inventory management. Barcodes are inexpensive and easy to implement. However, they only provide basic information, such as a product’s name, type, and price. Also, while you can glean information from a barcode, you can’t change it or add information to it. In addition, barcodes only group products by category—as opposed to radio-frequency identification (RFID), which provides a different code for every single item.

EDI First Multi-Industry Standards – 19812
Electronic data interchange (EDI) is just what it sounds like—the concept of sharing information electronically instead of on paper. Since EDI standardizes documents and the way they’re transferred, communication between business partners along the supply chain is easier, more efficient, and human error is reduced. To share information via EDI, however, software is required. This software can be challenging for businesses to implement and requires IT expertise to handle updates and maintenance.

RFID in the Food Supply Chain – 20033
RFID and RFID tags are encoded with information that can be transmitted to a reader device via radio waves, allowing businesses to identify and track products and assets. The reader device translates the radio waves into usable data, which then lands in a database for tracking and analysis.

RFID tags hold a lot more data than barcodes—and data is accessible in remote locations and easily shared along the supply chain to boost transparency and trust. Unlike barcode scanners, which need a direct line of sight to a code, RFID readers can read multiple tags at once from any direction. Businesses can use RFID to track products from producer to supplier to retailer in real time.

In 2003, Walmart rolled out a pilot program requiring 100 of its suppliers to use RFID technology by 2005.3 However, the retail giant wasn’t able to scale up the program. While prices have dropped from 35–40 cents during Walmart’s pilot to just 5 cents each as of 2018, RFID tags are still more expensive than barcodes.4 They can also be harder to implement and configure. Since active tags have such a long reach, businesses also need to ensure that scammers can’t intercept sensitive data.

Blockchain – 20175
A blockchain is a digital ledger of blocks (records) used to record data across multiple transactions. Changes are recorded in real-time, making the history unfalsifiable and transparent. Along the food supply chain, users can tag food, materials, compliance certificates and more with a set of information that’s recorded on the blockchain. Partners can easily follow the item through the physical supply chain, and new information is recorded in real-time.

Blockchain is more secure and transparent, less vulnerable to fraud, and more scalable than technologies like RFID. When paired with embedded sensors and RFID tags, the tech offers easier record-keeping and better provenance tracking, so it can address and help solve traceability problems. Blockchain boosts trust by reducing food falsification and decreasing delays in the supply chain.6

On the negative side, the cost of transaction processing with blockchain is high. Not to mention, the technology is confusing to many, which hinders adoption. Finally, while more transparency is good news, there’s such a thing as too much transparency; there needs to be a balance, so competitors don’t have too much access to sensitive data.

Cloud-Based Demand Forecasting – 2019 to present7
Cloud-based demand forecasting uses machine learning and AI to predict demand for various products at different points in the food supply chain. This technology leverages other technologies on this list to enhance communication across supply chain partners and improve the accuracy of demand forecasting, resulting in less waste and more profit for the food industry. It enables huge volumes of data to be used to predict demand, including past buying patterns, market changes, weather, events and holidays, social media input and more to create a more accurate picture of demand.

The alternative to cloud-based demand forecasting that is still in use today involves Excel or manual spreadsheets and lots of number crunching, which are time-intensive and prone to human error. This manual approach is not a sustainable process, but AI, machine learning and automation can step in to resolve these issues.

Obtaining real-time insights from a centralized, accurate and accessible data source enables food suppliers, brokers, distributors, brands and retailers to share information and be nimble, improving their ability to adjust supply in response to factors influencing demand.8 This, in turn, reduces cost, time and food waste, since brands can accurately predict how much to produce down to the individual SKU level, where to send it and even what factors might impact it along the way.

Speeding Up Adoption

As illustrated in Figure 1, the pace of technology change in the food industry has been slow compared to other industries, such as music and telecommunications. But we now have the tools, the data and the brainpower to create more resilient food supply chains.

Technology adoption, food industry
Figure 1. The pace of technology change in the food industry has been slow compared to other industries. Figure courtesy of Crisp.

Given the inherent connectivity of partners in the food supply chain, we now need to work together to connect information systems in ways that give us the insights needed to deliver exactly the rights foods to the right places, at the right time. This will not only improve consumer satisfaction but will also protect revenue and margins up and down food supply chains and reduce global waste.

References

  1. Weightman, G. (2015). The History of the Bar Code. Smithsonian Magazine.
  2. Locken, S. (2012). History of EDI Technology. EDI Alliance.
  3. Markoff, R, Seifert, R. (2019). RFID: Yesterday’s blockchain. International Institute for Management Development.
  4. Wollenhaupt, G. (2018). What’s next for RFID? Supply Chain Dive.
  5. Tran, S. (2019). IBM Food Trust: Cutting Through the Complexity of the World’s Food Supply with Blockchain. Blockchain News.
  6. Galvez, J, Mejuto, J.C., Simal-Gandara, J. (2018). Future Challenge on the use of blockchain for food traceability analysis. Science Direct.
  7. (2019). Crisp launches with $14.2 million to cut food waste using big data. Venture Beat.
  8. Dixie, G. (2005). The Impact of Supply and Demand. Marketing Extension Guide.
Mike Edgett, Sage

COVID-19 Leads Food Companies and Meat Processors to Explore AI and Robotics, Emphasize Sanitation, and Work from Home

By Maria Fontanazza
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Mike Edgett, Sage

The coronavirus pandemic has turned so many aspects of businesses upside down; it is changing how companies approach and execute their strategy. The issue touches all aspects of business and operations, and in a brief Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Mike Edgett of Sage touches on just a few areas in which the future of food manufacturing looks different.

Food Safety Tech: How are food manufacturers and meat processors using AI and robotics to mitigate risks posed by COVID-19?

Mike Edgett: Many food manufacturers and meat processors have had to look to new technologies to account for the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of these measures have been vital in preventing further spread of the virus (or any virus/disease that may present itself in the future), they’ve also given many food manufacturers insight into how these technologies could have a longer-term impact on their operations.

For instance, the mindset that certain jobs needed to be manual have been reconsidered. Companies are embracing automation (e.g., the boning and chopping of meat in a meatpacking plant) to replace historically manual processes. While it may take a while for innovations like this to be incorporated fully, COVID-19 has certainly increased appetite amongst executives who are trying to avoid shutdowns and expedited the potential for future adoption.

FST: What sanitation procedures should be in place to minimize the spread of pathogens and viruses?

Edgett: In the post-COVID-19 era, manufacturers must expand their view of sanitation requirements. It is more than whether the processing equipment is clean. Companies must be diligent and critical of themselves at every juncture—especially when it comes to how staff and equipment are utilized.

While working from home wasn’t a common practice in the manufacturing industry prior to March 2020, it will be increasingly popular moving forward. Such a setup will allow for a less congested workplace, as well as more space and time for bolstered sanitation practices to take place. Now and in the future, third-party cleaning crews will be used onsite and for machinery on a daily basis, with many corporations also experimenting with new ways to maintain the highest cleanliness standards.

This includes the potential for UV sterilization (a tactic that is being experimented with across industries), new ways to sterilize airflow (which is particularly important in meatpacking plants, where stagnant air is the enemy) and the inclusion of robotics (which could be used overnight to avoid overlap with human employees). These all have the potential to minimize the spread of pathogens and, ultimately, all viruses that may arise.

Mike Edgett, Sage
Mike Edgett is an enterprise technology and process manufacturing expert with 20+ years leading business strategy for brands such as Infor, Quaker Oats and Bunge Foods. At Sage, he leads the U.S. product marketing team focused on the medium segment.

FST: How is the food industry adjusting to the remote working environment?

Edgett: While the pandemic has changed the ways businesses and employees work across most industries, F&B manufacturers did face some unique challenges in shifting to a remote working environment.

Manufacturing as a whole has always relied on the work of humans, overseeing systems, machinery and technology to finalize production—but COVID-19 has changed who and how many people can be present in a plant at once. Naturally, at the start of the pandemic, this meant that schedules and shifts had to be altered, and certain portions of managerial oversight had to be completed virtually.

Of course, with employee and consumer safety of paramount concern, cleaning crews and sanitation practices have taken precedent, and have been woven effectively and efficiently into altered schedules.

While workers that are essential to the manufacturing process have been continuing to work in many facilities, there will likely be expanded and extended work-from-home policies for other functions within the F&B manufacturing industry moving forward. This will result in companies needed to embrace technology that can support this work environment.

FST: Can you briefly explain how traceability is playing an even larger role during the pandemic?

Edgett: The importance of complete traceability for food manufacturers has never been greater. While traceability is by no means a new concept, COVID-19 has not only made it the number one purchasing decision for your customers, but [it is also] a vital public health consideration.

The good news is that much of the industry recognizes this. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Sage and IDC, manufacturing executives said a key goal of theirs is to achieve 100% traceability over production and supply chain, which serves as a large part of their holistic digital mission.

Traceability was already a critical concern for most manufacturers—especially those with a younger customer base. However, the current environment has shone an even greater spotlight on the importance of having a complete picture of not only where our food comes from—but [also] the facilities and machinery used in its production. Major budget allocations will surely be directed toward traceability over the next 5–10 years.

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.