Reeling. The lurching, staggering motion of someone regaining balance from a wobbly position. Technology innovation has sent food logistics reeling: the cutting-edge solutions flooding the market have put leadership on shaky ground. In an industry that historically experiences few major changes every generation, the rapid influx has left decision makers with a weak understanding of what is available, especially as it relates to ROI. Ignoring it and continuing with outdated tools can render a company non-compliant or non-competitive; on the other hand, choosing the wrong one spells financial crisis.
The sucker punch of game-changing technology has been especially fraught for restaurants and last-mile delivery. In these markets, fast-paced disruptions benefit newcomers over established operations. The weight of these questions is complicated by added stressors: a changed demographic demands freshness faster while federal bodies have tightened regulations about compliance, food safety and traceability.
Food logistics nightmares and their solutions
In food logistics and service, there have always been three main pressures: time, distance and demand. Failing to overcome them creates the nightmares of poor harvest, unsafe processing, food spoilage, and waste. For last mile distributors and restaurateurs, these last two are the most concerning and the most damaging.
There’s a plethora of documents describing fascinating applications that modernize the supply chain to avoid these pitfalls. They all support the future model of food logistics: an agile, transparent organization that erases the distance between producer and consumer. This vision is supported by a few fundamental inventions and technology paradigm shifts:
- Cloud Computing — What sets cloud computing apart for food logistics is how it streamlines an organization’s track and trace initiatives. It also allows seamless integration of digital solutions so that companies can adopt over time, mitigating cost.
- Big Data — More than a single tool, this paradigm shift gives food logistics companies greater control to predict supply and demand on individual levels along with market forecasting. In turn, this gives companies the leeway necessary to meet the needs of a highly mobile, urban demographic that wants fresh fast instead of processed, shelf-stable goods.
- IIoT — The most important sector of technology to emerge in the last five years, IIoT can positively affect every single element of the food logistics supply chain. From cold-chain monitoring, in reefer trucks or kitchen fridges, to food safety monitoring and crop management, IIoT collects data and enacts automated responses that optimize every activity and increase compliance.
- Communications Networks — While Wi-Fi and 4G technology are commonly known, they have been too unreliable or expensive for small to mid-size organizations. Mesh networks between IIoT devices and LPWAN networks within food packaging, processing and storage facilities will increase communication and supervision, decreasing the likelihood of knowledge gaps.
- Artificial Intelligence Processes — Although this technology is still limited across industries, there are a few tools in this category that can already benefit the food supply chain. Foremost will be self-driving vehicles that can supplement the workforce gap for drivers, especially on the last mile, and help ensure better food safety.
Technology reducing the burden of compliance
More than the pressures of time, distance and speed, the looming presence of federal regulations affect food logistics organizations. With the recent FSMA act, distributors and warehouse managers are scrambling to ensure their products meet track and trace guidelines. More than liability, reputation in the industry is at stake.
IIoT solutions and improved network communications stand to provide the most help with enterprises meeting compliance. With continuous data collection and remote automation capability, these devices can detect harmful conditions that lead to food waste and spoilage. Moreover, by operating on low-power, low-bandwidth network models like T-Mobile’s NarrowBand, these solutions provide gapless reporting.
While gapless reporting ensures safety and reduces liability, it also provides the big data sets necessary for forecasting and prediction. By identifying vulnerable areas in the supply chain, these data sets can be used to predict when spoilage may occur or how to reduce excess supply.
Adapt, don’t convert
When it comes to food logistics wins, Amazon, whose agile and modernized structure can adopt innovations recklessly, seems to be speeding ahead. Other common household names like Wal-Mart, while slower than Amazon, have the large capital and distribution networks to similarly invest in state-of-the-art technology from the bottom up.
Small- to mid-sized companies, however, face workforce shortages and cash flow issues that prevent them from following similar gung-ho technology investments. They are also the most negatively affected when one of those nightmare situations takes place. There is a key to navigating this tricky situation: adaptation instead of conversion.
Consider a cold-chain 3PL team with stringent FSMA requirements and above-standard expectations for an artisan creamery with which it contracts. Rather than replacing a reefer fleet with smart system vehicles, simply equipping them with a remote monitoring device will accomplish goals. Integrating with the current vehicle configuration and a pre-existing cloud computing service will provide a technological edge to meeting regulations.
The same is true for restaurants. By placing key sensors throughout kitchens, and tracking food movement, food safety standards can be exceeded handily. There is no need to have a state of the art oven with smart technology built in or a closed-loop smart refrigerator. Instead, focus on integration and common operation that builds on and improves foundational systems.