The robots are coming!
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Explore This IssueAugust/September 2019
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Actually, they have already arrived for many applications in the food industry. While physical robotics are commonly used in food processing to perform tasks such as butchering, picking and placing fruit into containers, decorating cakes, and more, a new category of robotics—robotics process automation (RPA)—is likely to be more popular in the food industry in the near future.
RPA employs artificial intelligence (AI) to automate processes via a non-physical robot. RPA can fill out forms, validate invoices, copy and paste data, check and track data, and follow any other rules it is programmed for. It is an ideal fit for repetitive tasks that can be automated with software. The application, which may be implemented from a cloud application or on-premise, is gaining ground in many back-office operations. While the food industry is a late adopter at best, RPA could become valuable technology.
The researcher Information Services Group (ISG) reports that RPA affords a 43-percent reduction in resources for order-to-cash processes: billing, credit, collections, and pricing. Savings ranged from 32 to 34 percent. ISG predicts that by the end of this year, 72 percent of all companies will use RPA to automate support functions and reduce costs, improve productivity, increase compliance, and shorten transaction times.
Mars, Inc., the global manufacturer of confectionery, pet food, and other food products, boasted about using RPA to consolidate back-office operations into one streamlined operation. A food producer in Europe used RPA to streamline its vendor procurement with AI to analyze vendor documents, perform a vendor credit check, and recommend a vendor to select. The European firm also applied RPA to answer customer order inquiries via their email system: A virtual AI robot logged into their shipping portal, replied to the customer, and moved to the next customer inquiry, with no human involvement. The company claimed to eliminate 40 to 60 percent of the manual effort that otherwise would have been required.
Robotics Process Automation for Food Safety?
While many back-office operations—such as human resources, finance, accounting, and routine processing—use RPA, the food industry is likely to adopt functions, including managing documentation and data surrounding product recall management and Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance. Heather Larrabee, executive vice president of GoSpotCheck and a former executive at Whole Foods Market, comments that a single food safety-related event can create tremendous risk for brands, cause harm to customers, and generally erode long-term trust.
“The financial and relational impacts of events can be enormous,” she says. “The proactive nature of FSMA requirements lends itself to robotic process automation to create a dynamic ‘safety net’ for companies. Used in tandem with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that feed data to machine learning (ML)/AI tools, it also reduces cost and labor. We’re seeing brands invest with Testo to monitor when oil should be changed in fryers, automate temperature measurements of food, and understand things like how many times a bathroom door has been opened. This helps them optimize cleaning schedules and gain real-time, trusted insights into food safety and sanitation conditions.” Larrabee adds that AI and ML can detect and predict potential safety issues before they occur, as well as assist in reporting—automated reports can proactively signal busy leaders to risks in their locations.
“As we see increased costs to serve across restaurants and food services, high rates of attrition, and an increasingly complex global food system that amplifies foodborne illness risks in supply chains, AI and ML can provide an essential protection to safeguard consumers and brands alike,” Larrabee notes. “We’re also strong advocates for companies striking a balance between humans and machines. AI and ML are great at forecasting based on past performance, but as the technology evolves, we believe there is an essential role for humans to continue to play in the system. Ultimately, AI and ML can’t necessarily make decisions. We still need people in businesses to analyze the data and make critical calls. In the case of a food safety crisis, it’s paramount to understand what role the machine plays and what role people play in solving problems and keeping consumers safe.”
The sometimes-daunting activity level of products moving through complex distribution webs creates a challenge to not only ensure compliance but to act swiftly when a product recall occurs. “With countless regulations and compliance requirements, it can be difficult for businesses to keep track of many moving parts, especially within larger corporations that mass distribute product,” explains Richard French, chief revenue officer at Kryon. “RPA is an essential tool for businesses looking to improve compliance within the food and beverage industry. Once integrated into a company’s existing software, management can use RPA to track, trace, and measure inventory through SKU numbers, barcodes, or any preferred system.”
French notes that bots can use this system to identify product coming in and going out, and every stop it takes along the way. “Recording this data will allow employees to analyze the database and determine if a product is non-compliant, whether due to perished ingredients or unsafe storage temperatures. Even further, RPA enables companies to set up alerts that will notify workers when inventory is non-compliant, preventing issues before they arise and reducing eaten costs and waste.”
When Will RPA Become an Influencer?
Oded Karev, vice president and head of advanced process automation for NICE, which develops software for automation, including RPA, says that fast-moving consumer goods industries, including food perishables, are slow adopters in comparison to other industries such as retail, telecom, utilities, and financial services. Those who are using RPA are applying it to processes such as order optimization and operations streamlining, similar to how the European food processor example is using it.
Indirectly, RPA improves the quality and safety of food in many ways. Aside from the aforementioned aid in recall management and FSMA compliance, RPA enables food products to arrive on time and avoid spoilage. Waqqas Mahmood, the director of advanced technology for the consulting firm Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP, says that suppliers and transportation companies expect that if an invoice is sent, it must be promptly paid within the terms of service or the product will arrive late. “If you have an automated processor to tackle that issue, it alleviates those delays,” he notes. “Plus, it takes care of your call center volume: What are they going to do if they don’t get paid? They’re going to pick up the phone and call you. Now you have a call center that’s taking a lot of these calls that could instead be mitigated by robotics.”
While automation is widely used in many industries, RPA is bound to play a more prominent role in food quality safety where IoT and the aggregation of big data are more important than ever. “I don’t think it’s going to be a disruptor because there are so many other advanced technologies that play with IoT, sensor data, and so forth,” says Mahmood. He adds that RPA and other ways to automate, like python code or application programming interface development, will be beneficial to automate production and monitoring. “It can really accelerate that process, consuming data really quickly into the system where you want it,” he adds. “Then you can create a real-time dashboard out of that process.”
Mahmood sees RPA assisting greatly in building a platform for analytics. “Data sources come from IoT structured data, unstructured data, databases, and actual physical robot throughput,” he says. “All that information gets fed to the engine. The way it gets ingested is where I think robotics play a role in really moving it faster to the right system. Once it’s in the engine, that’s where you build in data modeling techniques, AI, machine learning, natural language processing, and more.”
Larrabee of GoSpotCheck predicts adoption will continue to be incremental and calculated. As the use of RPA gains traction in other industries, more food companies will adopt it for their operations. She concludes, “Brands will also want to set benchmarks and continue to evaluate whether their RPA investments are working as intended, delivering efficiencies without compromising food safety. In doing so, it frees their teams to focus on high-value work: serving customers, driving sales, making decisions, solving problems, innovating, and making great food.”
Romeo is a technology writer focused on all business and technology topics. Reach him at