Sensors, digital twins and the Internet of Things: the supply chains that get food to our tables are becoming smarter, faster and greener.

The supply chains that get food to our tables are becoming smarter, faster and greener. Here are some of the latest food supply chain innovations from around the world.

Using the Internet of Things to reduce food’s carbon footprint

The Internet of Things (IoT) describes physical objects that connect and exchange data with other devices and systems over the internet or through other communication networks like Bluetooth.

Israeli-based tech start-up company Wiliot has developed a battery-free, stamp-sized Bluetooth label that can be attached to products or packaging. In the case of fresh food, it can sit on the side of transport crates. With embedded IoT sensors, the labels track and record the temperature and location of the produce.

Artist rendering of a stamp-sized Bluetooth label with the Wiliot logo on it.
Tech such as this stamp-sized Bluetooth label from Wiliot can help supply chains get food to supermarket shelves fresher. Supplied by Wiliot.

Wiliot used these labels to track 50 cases of strawberries from a US distribution centre to a store. They discovered the strawberries sat in the delivery truck for far longer than required and dipped below freezing seven times. They then exceeded refrigeration temperature sitting for a prolonged time in the store’s delivery area.

Armed with this sort of data, food supply chains can improve produce quality and shorten delivery times so food is fresher when it reaches us. The company’s ultimate aims are to reduce waste along the supply chain and the carbon footprint of manufacturing and transport.

Seeing double 

A digital twin is a computer model of a real-life product, system or process. It mimics how something works and how it will work under different conditions. Teaming it with machine learning can build further insights and predictions.

Digital twins can be used to design buildings to help them withstand earthquakes. They can help train people while reducing their exposure to high-risk or high-cost environments. There are medical digital twins to predict human health conditions.

In food manufacturing, digital twins can model equipment and production lines to help improve designs and efficiencies. Across a whole supply chain, they can start to identify opportunities. For example, improvements in delivery times, bottle necks or wastage. They can also provide things like real-time visibility of material flows.

A person is sitting at a desk and has turned around and is smiling at the camera. On the desk in front of them is a laptop, two large computer screens and a piece of equipment. They are making a digital twin.
Xing Wang makes a digital twin of seminar attendees at our food innovation centre in Victoria.

Our food innovation centre is using a digital twin of a new line for processing plant-based protein foods. The line is yet to be built, but we can already identify ways to improve the layout and the products it will make. The line will help contribute to our Future Protein Mission’s work in scaling up plant protein production in Australia.

Tracing the best fruit

At their Tatura SmartFarm in north central Victoria, Agriculture Victoria is researching and developing prototype systems that capture quality data on apples, pears and stone fruit. The systems can then share the data throughout the supply chain.

Picture of a fruit orchid. Alongside the row of fruit trees is a tractor and in the background a person can be seen picking fruit.
AgVic are testing new sensor technologies on apples, pears and stone fruit at their Tatura SmartFarm in north central Victoria. Supplied by AgVic.

New sensor technologies are mounted on a platform harvester and an electric vehicle and driven through the orchard. They collect data at each point along the way to provide insights into the quality of the fruit and the productivity of the orchard.

Traceability systems like this aim to help all or parts of a food supply chain comply with regulations, improve productivity and support product identification.

London calling

Machine learning, predictive analytics, robotics, Industrial Internet of Things, virtual reality and augmented reality are all technologies you mightn’t associate with food. But all are in in development, to varying degrees, to help manufacture foods in the UK.

According to Associate Professor Nik Watson from the University of Nottingham, digital food and drink manufacturing is growing in the UK. However, sustainability, net zero targets and reducing wastage are much bigger drivers and have greater focus than in Australia.

Assoc Prof Nik Watson from the University of Nottingham is standing at a microphone alongside a screen upon which is a slide titled UK Food and Drink Manufacturing.
Assoc Prof Nik Watson from the University of Nottingham. The UK is ahead of Australia on sustainability, net zero targets and reducing wastage in food manufacturing.

An example from the UK is research into the use of sound waves, known as ultrasonics technology. The sound waves can help dislodge waste material and make cleaning more efficient, reducing water and energy consumption in manufacturing processes. Together with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, ultrasonics could help manufacture fermented foods like yoghurt and beer with improved sustainability credentials.

Smart technologies like this can help make each step in a supply chain greener, and there are many lessons for Australia.


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