Why you should care
Because this tech is protecting your tummy.
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In the small town of Cambridge City in eastern Indiana sits a 420,000-square-foot industrial building amped up with some heavy-duty tech: temperature-sensing, high-definition cameras, real-time location services and high-tech security access control. No, it’s not a military prison, the location of a top-secret UFO program or a massive grow-op. It’s a futuristic meatpacking facility.
SugarCreek Packing Co.’s new plant, which opened its doors a year ago, is among the most advanced in the country, showcasing the latest innovation taking shape in the food and beverage manufacturing industry. It’s just one of a growing number of facilities that are hooking up every piece of machinery to the Internet to improve both their bottom line and product safety. We’re talking smart sensors that can help predict mechanical malfunctions before they happen and detect pathogens before a potential outbreak or recall occurs, and wired-up spy trucks for transport. Think 24-hour surveillance for your food.
The food and beverage production industry is nearing a technological tipping point, explains Andrew Waycott, chief technology officer of Factora, a manufacturing technology consulting agency. And it’s paying off. Depending on the manufacturer and their products, when connected technologies are employed on the manufacturing floor, production costs drop by 5 to 20 percent, Waycott says. “We’ve seen even bigger numbers than that,” he adds; investment typically pays for itself in less than a year.
The packaged-food industry, which is expected to surpass $3 trillion globally by 2020, has traditionally struggled with a number of major challenges that new technology is now helping to alleviate. No. 1 on the list: food waste. One-third of all food produced around the world — some 1.3 billion tonnes — gets wasted each year, according to the United Nations. Another big hurdle is maintaining food safety; a single contamination can decimate a company or even an entire industry. There’s also the challenge of maintaining food quality during transportation. To further complicate matters, food and beverage producers are staring down constantly thinning margins.
SugarCreek’s approach to these challenges has paid off. For one, the 50-year-old family-run business installed 250 heat-sensing cameras that not only monitor the assembly line and find opportunities to increase productivity but also detect irregularities and foreign materials in products. Wi-Fi throughout the plant enables remote maintenance and operation of machinery. And RFID chips embedded in employee uniforms track their location — which, in the event of an emergency, can help first responders easily locate staff within the sprawling facility. The facility is home to the world’s largest sous vide production line, which cooks vacuum-sealed steak in hot water, a process that is faster, more energy efficient, safer and increases the final product’s shelf life. By better utilizing raw materials, SugarCreek has seen a gain of a couple of percentage points in yields and output. Which may not sound like much, explains the company’s CIO Ed Rodden, “but when the protein is 60 to 70 percent of your cost, and you’re running very large volumes, a couple percentage points is very significant.”
What’s enabling this technological revolution in the industry is the declining cost of connected sensors. Every year it becomes cheaper and easier to wire old-school manufacturing equipment with new monitoring technology. For example, the cost of an average sensor dropped by more than half between 2004 and 2014, and the cost of an accelerometer, which measures movement, fell from $2 in 2006 to $0.40 in 2015. Biochemical sensors, which provide the ability to quickly test food quality and safety in real time, have also declined in price in recent years.
These new technologies can now detect biochemical and chemical reactions during the harvesting, transportation and manufacturing stages, “so you can find that pathogen at an earlier stage, and nip it in the bud before it gets through the channel,” explains Lowell Catlett, the former dean of the college of agricultural, consumer and environmental sciences at New Mexico State University. Trucks wired with sensors and beacons can monitor temperature and contents, flagging potential risks to products. This helps to answer key questions like, “Can we fix that truck before the product goes bad or does it need to be discarded?” says John Santagate, a supply chain research manager for International Data Corp. After all, who wants ice cream that has been thawed and refrozen during the transportation process?
And while these connected technologies have the capacity to revolutionize the food industry in a relatively short period of time, there are some big obstacles. Taking the leap requires a lot of rapid change — not only in the technology but also in the very structure of the industry. One of the biggest challenges for organizations is not having the capacity to leverage modern technology, says Santagate: “Previous business models have been optimized in a world without those technologies.” In other words, the technology may be more widely available and less expensive than ever before, but in one of the country’s oldest industries, making that transition still requires an upfront investment and a willingness to experiment with new business models.
Sure, opening up a long-established business to the Internet of Things might sound a little overwhelming. But by embracing new connected systems that work to protect products from field to store, as well as profit margins? That might be the kind of peace of mind worth the leap into the future.
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