How Consumers, Data and AI are Shaping New Food Automation Frontier

With data and AI, the food system has a huge opportunity to evolve to solve food insecurity.

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When it comes to automation, agriculture is one of the most advanced industries. Labor shortfalls and the need to get the absolute most out of a shrinking amount of useable soil and land have led agriculture to embrace automation faster than nearly any industry. The labor and land issues mean that non-automated parts of the supply chain have largely plateaued. Meanwhile, global economic demands are shifting and complicated to forecast, and consumers are only asking more from their food, where it comes from, its impact and how it’s been made. The next frontier is downstream where other industries have been focusing -- handling, packing, sorting and processing.

While the primary growth in automation in this sector had been focused on planting and harvesting tasks, as these are highly repetitive and generally straightforward nature of what’s asked of machines, robotics in agriculture, for example, are projected to grow globally to $20 billion by 2025. Today, like nearly every other industry, most of the food system is only scratching the surface of what’s possible through modern automation and opportunities are surfacing across all facets of business.

Consumer searching for transparency

Transparency will dominate supply chains in 2021. The increasing convergence of food and retail with personalization and transparency are going to ask more from traditional automation processes built for a limited number of SKUs or crops.

This shift will require flexibility and adaptability to understand shape, feel, color and operationalize material handling, packing and sorting to increase speed, safety and efficiency and meet these new demands.

Making data actionable

Today, there’s more data than ever coming out of farms - from equipment to soil. As this data has expanded on the farm, we’re starting to see a shift in focus from field to facility.  Everything from the density of seeds, chemicals or nutrients can all be utilized to enable automation processes to learn, adapt and become additive far beyond yield amounts and pricing.

Imagine a grain processor that could use the data from its silos to streamline bagging and palletizing. It could use data to understand and adapt to the type of grain and where and how it needed to be bagged and palletized. Right now, that would require manual intervention to switch lines, but we’re seeing technological leaps that make this very much a reality. 

AI and machine learning

One of the factors pushing automation is the recent accessibility and scale of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies that are turning data into intelligence, allowing systems to adapt to things like crop volume, SKUs and materials in a way never thought possible when businesses designed traditional automated systems. These technologies are what will make data actionable and enable it to impact bottom lines. According to MarketsandMarkets, the AI in agriculture market was valued at $600 million in 2018 and is expected to reach $2.6 billion by 2025.

When we employ these learning technologies, we can define how a machine should proceed or recover in the packing or palletizing process, and decrease the negative feedback loop that slows time to market, the need to manually reconfigure and wastes resources. While some of today’s current systems employ AI and machine learning already, the industry has few solutions bringing this to life at the scale of today’s agriculture market. Especially outside the crop productivity space, the food business has yet to adapt to the ways these technologies could change business.

The time is now

The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has underscored how supply chains and food systems need to evolve. Consumers will continue to ask more from a food system that was not built for today’s diet complexities and the growing number of consumers. With the world population expecting to surpass 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050, the World Economic Forum projects that we will need 70% more food than is consumed today. Together, with data and AI, the food system has a huge opportunity to evolve to meet this critical need. But, we can’t wait; the time is now to invest in modern automation across our businesses.