The fourth industrial revolution is happening, and there are some great opportunities for food & drink companies to exploit. While Industry 3.0 was all about automation and computer control, Industry 4.0 is concerned with the exploitation of data along the entire production process.
There are a number of core themes: decentralisation of production - more flexible and closer to the point of use; deployment of sensors to generate real-time data to control and optimise production; and virtualisation - the ability to model the process to understand and make changes to improve efficiency.
The potential productivity gains from Industry 4.0 are compelling, with estimates suggesting up to 25%. This will be unlocked through immediate insights into process efficiency provided by mixing historical and real-time data: for example, using data analytics to predict and pre-empt plant or process failures, keeping production at maximum levels. For food and drink, arguably with a starting point often slightly behind other sectors, the net gains could be even more impressive.
The use of data across a more integrated supply chain will also allow food and drink companies to better match production to demand and to respond more flexibly to changes in either direction, reducing waste for short shelf-life products.
For an industry that has struggled to control its complex supply network in order to combat fraud and maintain consumer confidence, key elements of this new digital approach will be invaluable. The introduction of cyber-physical devices (sensors) on animals or goods, linked by the ‘industrial internet of things’ to an infallible data technology called blockchain, would enable ultimate traceability of ingredients and finished products along the supply chain. Each transaction would be logged and stored on the blockchain, forever linked to the product or ingredient and the parties involved. This public and secure record would establish an unbreakable chain of custody. It would create a robust supply network based on provable provenance for the first time.
As with all brave new futures, challenges abound. The system requires a culture of sharing closed datasets that has not been established in any industry. The widespread deployment of sensors is already under way. But are these sufficiently secure against hackers?
The availability of skills is another major issue. Companies would need sufficient people capable of running complex data operations, and the food and drink sector is not usually a first choice destination for top graduate engineers or data scientists.
There is also the question of the availability of investment capital for new industrial platforms.
This is not to say these barriers are insurmountable. The process of digital transformation could be gradual. The industry could also collaborate with innovators whose expertise could transfer easily into the food sector. This approach is known as ‘open innovation’ and is a proven method for companies to learn how to harvest ideas generated outside of the organisation.
Steven Wood is senior manager, commercial, at Digital Catapult