Tackling Food Wastage With Supply Chain Monitoring

Fruit Machines – But Not as You Know Them

We’ve all neglected our fruit bowls long enough for a banana to become decidedly overripe. You throw it out, maybe even chide yourself for food waste, buy some more and that’s that. But for large farmers, wholesalers and grocers, this problem is far more than a slight inconvenience. Failing to handle and store edible produce appropriately costs an enormous amount of money. If food items don’t meet certain regulations or requirements, entire batches can become worthless. It’s notoriously complicated to keep track of large quantities of produce, which leads to food wastage as well as business losses. As the global population gradually increases, this needs to be avoided. Fortunately, disruptive FoodTech is going bananas.

Getting to the core of food storage
Food storage has come a long way from ‘cold rooms’ to sterilised, refrigerated units. And, despite the bad press that preservatives have attracted over the years, they have greatly extended the shelf life of essentially all kinds of food. Unfortunately, even with advanced storage solutions, fresh produce doesn’t last forever. If farmers, wholesalers and grocers get storage conditions wrong, then they lose money, time and credibility. However, at Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Material Science and Technology, researchers may have found a way to help. Using a 3D printed fruit simulator kitted out with sensors, the team can monitor the temperature of fruits as they make their way from countryside to consumer. Their first machine has a plastic outer shell designed to look like a red apple, containing synthetic materials that react to environmental conditions in the same way as the real thing. In fact, Empa tests found that the fruit simulator achieved within five per cent accuracy of actual fruit. As well as apples, the team have produced fake bananas, mangos and lemons. Alongside traditional quality checks and existing storage solutions, these little fruit machines are a promising new development which could make it far easier to do so. In short, the data driven device is bringing Internet of Things connectivity and Big Data to yet another legacy procedure. But how will this disrupt incumbent methods?

How could fruit monitors disrupt produce?
The fake fruits designed at Empa are clearly enablers for Internet of Things connectivity in the food supply chain. It’s also another example of data use within logistics and retail. Being able to track the metrics of fruit (and potentially other types of food) could encourage food sustainability across the globe by cutting down on waste. Spoiled food stores in developing countries can be life threatening, and any technology that helps avoid this is a positive disruptive force. Humanitarian concerns aside, smart produce trackers have obvious utility for large crop producers, shipping companies and supermarkets. Losing a batch of fruit is damaging for both company image and revenue. At the same time, the monitor could be equally helpful to smaller, specialist businesses. The device could easily be used in the home, too, to watch over fridges and fruit bowls. Looking forward, this is likely to include more than just fruit and vegetables. Imagine using a similar device to monitor the thermal response of expensive cuts of meat in cold storage, for instance. However, if this kind of technology is really going to make an impact, it will need considerable funding to get things off the ground. Research facilities are well funded, but sending a product into mainstream markets requires more than just financial resources.

FoodTech may not have attracted as much attention as other industries, despite how fundamental it is to humanity. Even so, the 3D printed fruit simulator (as well as other innovative FoodTech developments) indicates that this is changing. This is just as well, as the threat of world hunger is becoming more of a reality than a prediction. However, the adoption of FoodTech solutions largely depends on receiving enough investment and interest to create marketable products. At the moment, the fruit machine exists as a proof of concept, demonstrating that IoT and data analysis can enhance quality control. It will be a while before you’ve got one sitting in your fruit bowl keeping an eye on that pesky avocado. Even so, there’s huge potential for food monitors within big corporations, SMEs, and the domestic market to boot. Hopefully the little fruit simulator hasn’t bitten off more than it can chew.

Will food monitoring devices reduce food wastage? Is there a domestic market for food simulators? How will fake fruits effect existing food storage methods? Share your thoughts and opinions.