How technology is being used to improve food production from farm to fork

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

UK food is the largest manufacturing sector in the country, contributing more than £28bn to the economy.

CROP - Food and Drink Table Meal - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Many manufacturers involved in the sector are already taking advantage of modern technologies – particularly digital tools; however, experts say that adoption needs to urgently become more widespread and more deeply embedded.

To that end, scientists from Loughborough University’s Centre for Sustainable Manufacturing and Recycling Technologies (SMART) have prepared a strategy backed by the Internet of Food Things (IoFT) and led by the University of Lincoln, recommending the next phase in digital uptake for the food industry supply chain.

The document builds on evidence gathered by SMART and IoFT – which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – from 50 industry leaders, government delegates and academics, which SMART said is “vital to the prosperity of the UK food industry”.

The full ‘Digital Food Briefing Document: digital technologies for improving productivity in food manufacturing’, can be downloaded here

The report outlines the current challenges facing the sector and recommends nine steps to shareholders that will “accelerate the large-scale adoption of digital technologies to improve productivity, in particular by food SMEs”.

The suggestions are directed by discussions held at an event hosted at the Loughborough University London campus earlier this year.

The challenges for UK food manufacturing

The report initially focuses on three “digital food strands” where a shift to emerging technologies could transform industry:

  • real-time resource efficient production,
  • a resilient and productive food supply chain,
  • and digital technologies to improve consumer engagement.

Additionally, Smart and IoFT look to other sub-sectors of industry that can benefit from the adoption of digital technology, including resource efficiency, food waste reduction, return on investment, and future consumer-driven business models.

Recommendations

The briefing document concludes by highlighting nine “next steps” for UK food manufacturers, some of which 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

“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 Industry 4.0,” said director of the Centre for SMART, Professor Shahin Rahimifard.

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

Steve Brewer, IoFT network co-ordinator, said greater productivity in the food sector can be found in pioneering innovations, adding that these now need to be “scaled up to reap the full potential of digitalisation”.

By Rory Butler, Staff Journalist