Digital Technology and Food Manufacturing: The Next Steps for the Industry

From using satellites to track asparagus crops, to measuring the lean meat percentage of pork using a high-tech camera, companies across the £28.2bn UK food manufacturing supply chain are embracing emerging technologies in new and interesting ways.

Now, experts say taking advantage of digital technologies is “vital to the prosperity of the UK food industry” requiring immediate action, and a new report has identified three different “digital food strands to encourage take up of such technology: real-time resource efficient production; a resilient and productive food supply chain; and digital technologies to improve consumer engagement.

The brief for stakeholders has been prepared by academics from the University of Lincoln’s Internet of Food Things (IoFT) initiative which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and Loughborough University’s Centre for Sustainable Manufacturing and Recycling Technologies (SMART).

The 15-page briefing document, titled Digital Food Briefing Document: digital technologies for improving productivity in food manufacturing, is aimed at business leaders and policymakers interested in the cutting-edge ideas for increasing productivity through digitalisation. It is hoped it will accelerate the large-scale adoption of digital technologies to improve productivity, in particular by food SMEs.

The sub-sections examine how the adoption of digital technology can impact a wide range of areas such as resource efficiency, food waste reduction, return on investment, and future consumer driven business models.

The document builds on evidence gathered at an event led by the IoFT and Centre of SMART, which brought together 50 industrial leaders, professional bodies, government representatives and academics to discuss improving productivity in food manufacturing. It was hosted at the Loughborough University London campus earlier this year.

The recommendations include:
•     Generate peer benchmarking information and knowledge on increasing productivity, reducing resource consumption and waste generation through the adoption of digital technologies

•     Establish cross-sector partnerships for knowledge sharing on best practices to harness the potential of big data analytics for process optimisation and new food product development.

•     Increase opportunities for training and education not only for the development of new technology, but in enabling the current workforce to use digital tools

•     Create new food safety, quality and traceability standards based on the capabilities of new digital technologies

•     Develop user friendly cost-effective digital tools to support much needed behavioural change to improve sustainable food consumption.

A number of case studies are referenced in the report as examples of how technology is already being used to benefit companies in the sector. Edeka’s digitalised meat processing plant and Barfoot’s asparagus tracking methods are discussed, as is the new emerging food supply chain actors such as Gousto – one of the UK’s leading recipe kit providers.

The briefing document concludes by outlining the current challenges presented by digital technologies and suggests nine “next steps” for the industry.

Professor Shahin Rahimifard, Director of the Centre for SMART, said of the briefing document: “Actors across the food manufacturing supply chain are evolving their practices to reduce waste, meet the food security challenge and address changing consumer needs, aided by the emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0).

“The specific actions proposed by this briefing document aim to remove the existing obstacles for taking full advantage of modern digital technologies within the UK food manufacturing.”

Steve Brewer, IoFT Network Co-ordinator, added: “The elusive goal of greater productivity can be found in a number of pioneering innovations in the food sector, these now need to be scaled up in order to reap the full potential of digitalisation.

“We hope that this report can prepare a pathway for successful digitalisation in the food sector.
The full Digital Food Briefing Document: digital technologies for improving productivity in food manufacturing, can be downloaded via the on the IoFT website. It can also be found on the Centre for SMART webpage.