History is filled with examples of how new inventions have revolutionized manufacturing industries. For instance, food and beverage industry analysts often talk about three waves of technology-driven revolution. The first of these waves occurred in the 1980s, when manufacturing resource planning systems arrived to automate order processing and bill paying. Before this era, products were entirely mechanical and business processes were manual. The second part of the food manufacturing revolution arrived with the explosion of the Internet in the 1990s. The Internet allowed different enterprise functions to be more closely coordinated and interconnected with the outside world—suppliers and customers could be reached across the world, allowing companies to integrate their supply chains on a global scale.
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And today, the food manufacturing industry is riding the third wave of the Industrial Internet and the Internet of Things (IoT). Sensors, processors, software, and Internet connectivity are now part of the actual manufactured product, as well as an integral part of its production. Add this capability to the introduction of cloud computing, where data is stored on servers around the globe and accessed from any Internet-capable computing device, and you now have a world in which product performance, location, maintenance, and status data are stored and analyzed in the cloud. These cloud-based solutions are not only more powerful, nimble, and reliable but also less expensive and more mobile-ready, allowing instant access to big data insights from anywhere at any time.
Although the food industry may appear established and built-out, there are always lessons to be learned from other industries that can propel food manufacturers forward. Leveraging technology and key learnings from other industries and deploying them in the food production space need to continue to be prevalent. With that in mind, here are some examples of how the food manufacturing industry is improving thanks to technology originated from other industries.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the automobile was only attainable to the very wealthy. Enter Henry Ford who changed the industry by developing an assembly line that increased the efficiency of manufacturing and decreased its cost. Prior to the introduction of the assembly line, cars were individually crafted by teams of skilled workmen—a slow and expensive procedure. The assembly line reversed the process and instead of workers going to the car, the car came to the worker, automating the same task over and over again.
Automation technology has long been a staple of food production, and as it is used more and more in the food production industry, the cost to install Industrial Internet workflows is decreasing, making the technology more accessible for manufacturers. This technology can help improve efficiencies across a plant by merging worker responsibilities, and increasing speed of production while reducing product deficiencies.
Another benefit that automation technology brought to both workers in the car assembly lines and now food production is added safety. There are several hazardous jobs within a manufacturing plant, such as manually moving heavy materials to load them into processing machines and operating certain equipment, which can cause serious injury if workers aren’t careful. Automation technology and digitizing the work process can help ensure the right process is followed and the right steps happen in the correct order. That way, necessary steps to ensure employee safety are not inadvertently bypassed, and employees are free to monitor machines and keep the workflow processes moving forward.
In the 1950s, televisions became more affordable and quickly rose as the entertainment of choice across homes in America. As television sales skyrocketed, suddenly families were gathering around the TV set for dinner, and soon came the advent of pre-packaged, frozen, TV dinners. Not only did television change how Americans consumed their food, it also brought about a change in how Americans thought about food.
Food manufacturers could now directly reach consumers through television and advertising, and promotion became pivotal to the marketing of the American food supply. Television remains the most widely used advertising medium for food manufacturers because it can reach large audiences and instill brand name recognition. Much television advertising is also aimed toward people who do not read newspapers, such as children.
Television allowed food manufacturers to directly influence consumers and the industry quickly learned that whenever consumer tastes and preferences shifted, food manufactures must respond to the demand. In 2013, for example, consumers placed a high-value on healthier food alternatives. To respond to the demand, food manufacturers were forced to find innovative ways to create healthier products or risk losing sales to competitors. This included everything from changing formulas in their products to achieve a healthier output, refitting equipment and factory lines, and heading back to the test kitchen to create new recipes that gave consumers both higher nutritional values and more flavorful taste.
The IoT continues to permeate the minds of today’s technology decision makers in all areas of business. With the recent estimates of the IoT and Industrial Internet financial impact being in the trillions of dollars, the big data they produce is getting exponentially larger in volume and data analytics is becoming increasingly important and complex.
Automation technology has helped food manufacturers leverage the data they collect differently. Organizations can now analyze the output of Industrial Internet data into actionable information to help food manufacturers gain better plant insights and improve processes. For instance, using big data and advanced analytics, manufacturers are able to view product quality and delivery accuracy in real time, making trade-offs on which suppliers receive the most time-sensitive orders. Qualifying metrics now becomes the priority over measuring product delivery schedule performance alone.
Using sensors on all machinery in a food production plant also provides operations managers with immediate data and visibility into how each piece of equipment is operating. Having advanced analytics of the machine data captured shows quality, performance, and training variances by each machine and its operators. This is invaluable in streamlining workflows in a food manufacturing plant, and is becoming increasingly commonplace.
For instance, I recently worked on a team with a customer to put in place a workflow system to leverage and capture big data to improve overall efficiency. Management knows that data is king, but data is really only as good as the processes that are in place to use it. On the flipside, if a food manufacturer doesn’t have a standard process in place for getting connected, getting insights, or optimizing data—its data will just sit without a purpose.
Throughout the years, retailers have utilized technology to become more nimble, tracking inventory better, and adopting real-time supply chain methods that keep the right items in stock at the right price. Some retailers are even bumping it up a notch, using multiple technologies to detect and record everything from traffic patterns on their shop floor to optimizing shoppers’ mobile devices on store WiFi in order to track behavior and send relevant coupons their way.
Retailers now leverage the copious amounts of data produced by these technology interactions to improve and personalize customers’ in-store experiences. Using sensors to track customers’ paths through a store, for example, can help managers improve store layout and merchandise placement strategies. In addition, online marketplaces like Amazon, which are not confined to inventory within the four-walls of traditional stores, can use similar merchandise strategies to “suggest” a larger variety of items to its customers.
The customization of consumer products in the retail industry has also led to services such as Amazon Fresh, where shoppers order their groceries online and have them directly delivered to their residence, taking out the need to visit a brick-and-mortar supermarket completely. Food manufacturers are mimicking this personalized approach and providing workers with the ability to customize food production to match in-place infrastructure. One supplier customer was able to eliminate its end customer’s inventory carrying costs and, on average, 10 percent of the inventory held onsite. Ultimately, this allows food manufacturers to maintain a just-in-time strategy that increases efficiency and decreases waste by receiving goods only as they are needed in the production process, thereby reducing inventory costs.
The use of 3D printers has the potential to revolutionize the way food is manufactured within the next 10 to 20 years, impacting everything from how military personnel get food on the battlefield to how long it takes to get a meal from the computer to your table, according to the IFT15 Symposium: Where Science Feeds Innovation.
Prices of 3D printers has been steadily declining, from more than $500,000 in the 1980s to less than $1,000 today for a personal-sized device, making them increasingly available to consumers and manufacturers. Although they are not widely used in food manufacturing yet, their general availability is fueling research into how they can be used to personalize foods (based on dietary needs or allergies) and speed delivery of food to consumers.
The technology behind 3D printing could allow food manufacturers to bring complexity and variety to consumers at a low cost. Traditional manufacturing is built on mass production of the same item, but with a 3D printer, it takes as much time and money to produce a complex, customized product that appeals to one person as it does to make a simple, routine product that would be appealing to a large group.
From the wisdom of Henry Ford in the 20th century to cutting-edge 3D technology, food manufacturers have successfully leveraged key innovations from other industries. The Industrial Internet is the newest wave of innovation and connected devices aren’t just changing the way consumers live, work, and play—they’re dramatically reshaping entire industries.
In order to thrive, food manufacturers need to continue to deploy technology from other industries to remain competitive. Food manufacturers have learned it is imperative not only to benchmark themselves against other food and beverage companies, but also other manufacturers in other industries. I heard from one company that it has moved from considering itself a beer manufacturer to a technology company that happens to produce beer—this is the kind of new mentality that needs to be embraced. The food manufacturers best positioned for the future are the ones experimenting now with ways to use intelligent, connected devices to offer new services, reshape experiences, and enter new markets by creating digital ecosystems.
Moore is the industry marketing manager for GE Digital. Reach her at Katie.Moore@ge.com.