The future of food manufacturing: New digital realities


The future of food manufacturing: new digital realities

When it comes to food manufacturing, digitisation isn’t always the first thought that comes to mind. However, technology and digital disruption over recent years has changed how we manufacture food through new applications, robotics, data acquisition and state-of-the-art processing techniques.

The world population is building towards 9 billion. Our available land is shrinking. Our resources are limited and our communities are growing more connected, leading to an important issue: food security. But, it’s not all doom and gloom; this is an exciting time for manufacturers responsible for bringing food to us.

As an organisation that works with clients to optimise the efficiencies and innovations in their food manufacturing processes, Aurecon is seeing first-hand how technology is starting to enable us to track, analyse and understand the way food manufacturing works to reduce food waste and carbon emissions, and feed people.

A small number of food manufacturers have adopted digital technologies to optimise and unlock operational excellence; however, the majority still have a significant journey ahead of them when it comes to embracing new digital technologies and data driven operations. We’re operating in an environment that is becoming increasingly complex and more connected than ever before and there is an immediate need to evolve for the industry’s future success. We have the smarts, and the technology, now we just need the action. Digitisation can assist this.

The world population is building towards 9 billion. Resources are limited and communities are growing more connected, leading to an important issue: food security.

The future of food manufacturing: New digital realities

Greater societal expectations

Today’s consumers want to know where their food comes from. Information technology has increasingly enabled consumers to access, share and validate information about products and gain an understanding of what happens to their food across the supply chain, from paddock to plate.

We’re seeing more discerning choices around what makes it into the grocery trolley that are influenced by how people feel about where food comes from, how it’s grown or raised, and its overall impact not only on their family, but on the community and world as well. A recent industry survey revealed that 55 per cent of interviewed consumers would be willing to pay more for products from socially responsible companies. For manufacturers, ingredient and production transparency may become an important non-price purchase trigger.

The first thinking paper in our digital series for agrifood explored how changing consumer demands will lead digital changes. This thinking paper explores the new digital realities with the promise of new levels of food manufacturing efficiencies to counter declining production forecasts and increasing food demand from a growing global population.

Adopting digitisation to reach consumers

The future of food will be centred around fast and fresh, and food manufacturing will require a new set of answers for a new set of questions.

The pivot to digital platforms has fuelled consumers’ expectations that food manufacturers can provide immediate and real-time response to their food demands and needs. The next technological trend appears to be the use of augmented reality and virtual reality for consumers to ‘visit’ grocery stores and ‘pull’ products from the store shelves they see through their screen. Take a look at the UK’s Tesco; it created a virtual grocery store in a number of South Korean train stations for time-poor commuters to fill their daily grocery order while waiting for their next train.

Food manufacturers will have to adopt digital technologies to produce food products that are in demand and get them to consumers quickly and freshly. They’ll also need to look for ways to reach consumers through technology-enabled experiences that demonstrate transparency in their food production supply chain.

The digitally mature will sprint ahead

For many years in food manufacturing, digital technologies have been used largely to achieve efficiency gains and cost reductions. However, a new strategic view is required to embrace digital technologies for greater resilience, smarter working and providing the products that consumers demand.

Those who don’t dive in soon are at great risk of either standing still or dying out. A report by digital transformation specialist company teknowlogy Group, who interviewed information and operational technology decision-makers, identifies where ‘smart factory’ initiatives are being implemented across Europe and where they’re not.

The manufacturers leading the way – the digitally mature – are sprinting ahead of the pack and making huge gains. Those implementing and exploiting digital technologies have common characteristics:

  • They have a digital strategy and digital ownership aligned closely with business strategy.
  • They are applying new, innovative technologies: sensors, automation, digital twins, the internet of things and machine learning – which all interact with each other to provide value and enable higher quality and higher margin products.
  • They are constantly looking for new ways to overcome new challenges. This is a signature of any company looking to grow and build their maturity in digital transformation. They don’t rest on their laurels; they keep moving.

The use of machines in food manufacturing is (and will continue) to ensure quality and affordability. By using automated processes and machines, costs reduce, fresh food quality is maintained and productivity improves. The number of robots in the European food industry is well over 30 000. Robotic machines can help to eliminate safety issues for more dangerous jobs in food manufacturing, for example the automation of a meat cutting process may lower workplace injuries.

In the past few years, 3D printing has really taken off across many industries and the food industry is one of them. There have been several applications of 3D printed food from NASA printing a pizza to creating soft foods for those who cannot chew and swallow hard food safely. It opens the door for innovation in food manufacturing like never before. There will be no slowing down with more additive manufacturing 3D printing innovations shaking up the industry.

Disruptive digital technologies

Disruptive digital technologies

Big data analytics

All digital disruptive technologies collect, generate and transmit massive amounts of data that have the potential to be mined and exploited. Big data is being used in an intelligent way; be that to make decisions much earlier, make the right decisions or reduce the risks inherent in making those decisions

Big data analytics examines large amounts of data to find hidden patterns, correlations and other useful insights. The automotive, electronics and aerospace industries have adopted these technologies faster than food manufacturing, but opportunities for implementation in food processing are available:

  • Collecting and analysing sensor data such as vibration and temperature to monitor asset health can significantly reduce machine downtime, and maximise the efficiency of maintenance
  • Monitoring production line variables such as pressure, temperature and other metrics of machine performance can improve dimensional accuracy
  • Using cameras, vision systems and other inspection equipment to monitor produce to ensure it meets standards, while reducing food waste
  • Combining machine vision with artificial intelligence can improve the quality and safety of food
  • Tracking products through multiple stages of production and collecting the associated data can provide insights into bottlenecks and help optimise the process
  • Collecting information on food ingredients and flavour compounds can fasttrack product reformulation
  • Sensors can monitor the amount of food debris remaining in the machine and optimise the cleaning process – reducing cleaning time, energy and water consumption
  • A digital twin from computational modelling of food breakdown and digestion to understand how different foods impact different human conditions

Food manufacturing chain will be reinvented

To battle economic pressures, react to climate changes and meet the consumption needs of a growing urban population, the food manufacturing chain will be reinvented.

Product design will become more creative using new materials to create food; vertically managed portions of the chain will convert to platform business models to improve efficiency; and distances between stages will decrease with technologically-fuelled step changes in the economics of small scale growing methods.

These changes point to a very different food manufacturing industry that evolves quickly to deliver on new production needs.

Food manufacturers will need to work with new partners and platforms, employing innovative methods to better manage resources. For instance, using digital solutions and advanced data analytics to improve productivity, cut costs and reduce energy intensity.

At present, one-third of global food production is lost in the agricultural supply chain. Food manufacturing will also become more efficient by reducing waste.

Technology will help sustainability achievements as food manufacturers deploy circular bioeconomy and sustainable business models with digital technologies such as machine learning.

Digitally-advanced food manufacturers will ‘go green’ with their packaging by using robotics, smart materials and digital solutions to find alternatives to plastics and harmful packaging to the environment. This will be looked upon favourably by consumers as their demand for sustainable goods continue to rise.

Future food production system

The future of food manufacturing: New digital realities

Start small and work up

The beauty of digital technology is the possibility to start small and build on success. There is no need to jump straight into buying the most advanced technologies and then realising that it was not fit for purpose. Instead, start by focusing on solving a key operational challenge by applying the correct digital solution.

The key is to start small and learn, see what advantages eventuate, and become bolder from there. Progress is essential, food manufacturers will gain momentum and achieve the progress that is possible when new digital approaches are implemented.

About the authors

Dr Ingrid Appelqvist is a food material scientist with strong multidisciplinary interests from reformulating food to developing a healthier and more sustainable food supply for the food industry and consumers. She has led research projects in developing novel healthy food using alternative plant-based proteins, which included reducing the carbon and water footprint of the products. She also developed research in personalised food based on the human genetic blueprint and using individual biometric data from wearable technology. She is Aurecon’s former Client Director for Manufacturing.

Hester De Wet is a chartered electrical engineer with industry experience ranging from mining, transmission and distribution systems, renewable energy, and civil aerospace to construction. She has worked in countries throughout the world with a focus on project management, design management, business strategy and innovation across the complete system life cycle, from research and product development to on-site project delivery. She leads the digital strategy for Aurecon’s Energy, Resources and Manufacturing market, focusing on digital solution implementation solving key challenges for our clients.

Unfortunately, you are using a web browser that Aurecon does not support.

Please change your browser to one of the options below to improve your experience.

Supported browsers:

To top