"Digital transformation is becoming an issue of primary importance in the European food industry,"says András Sebők, general manager at Campden BRI in Hungary and chair of R&D Expert Group at FoodDrinkEurope. Digital transformation is needed due to consumer and societal pressure - the problem is the lack of skilled people to make it happen. "Education is what's needed."
This is exactly why food and drink industry research & development institute Campden BRI-Hungary, together with the National Research Council of Italy (CNR) and ELTE Faculty of Informatics has developed a 4-day executive course Digitalisation and Industry 4.0 in Food Processing for the EIT Digital Professional School. Aimed at executives, it will bring ICT providers and food business leaders together.
The food and drink industry is the largest manufacturing industry in the European Union. The trade body FoodDrinkEurope just reported that in 2020, the industry employed 4.82 million people in 291,000 companies. Although the EU is the largest exporter of food and drink products in the world, the sector has been facing a decrease in its relative competitiveness compared to other world food producers in recent years according to the European Commission, mostly in terms of slower growth in labour productivity and added value.
Sebők sees increasing pressure on the industry from the consumer and from society, both having an impact on profit margins. A major concern in the industry is trust in food safety. "The sector suffered from big issues in the past and needs to improve trust through transparency and food safety. A scandal in one corner of the world will quickly spread among consumers. There is also a rapid development in consumer demand for sourcing information, in order to seek reassurance that safe and fair production practices are carried out.
Meanwhile, consumers demand a lot of diverse and personalised food products - at the same cost as a mass-produced items. "This is a challenge: to meet the needs of personalisation while still ensuring the benefits of large-scale production."
A third big trend according to Sebők is the societal pressure on sustainable and resource-efficient production. "There is pressure to reduce the energy impact while maintaining the viability of small businesses at the same time. The circular economy and making healthier diets an easy choice are other major themes within the industry."
Digitalisation and industry 4.0 can help address increasing demands from consumer and society in the food industry, says Sebők. He lists a series of benefits that industry 4.0 may bring to the industry:
- Sustainable production of customised products that maintain the efficiencies and costs of mass production
- More efficient detection of production failures
- Reduction of unnecessary costs through efficient use of resources
- Reduction of environmental impact from food processing and packaging
- Reduction in the rate of product and operational failures caused by human error
- More reliable food safety and hygiene
- More standardised food quality through better process control
- Optimisation of processes and production schedules
- Reduction of production downtime because of improved and more efficient maintenance.
Sebők illustrates the advantages of digital solutions with an example. Pregnant women, the elderly or people with weak immune systems can die if they eat a food product that is contaminated with the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes. The infection is difficult to detect, as is the cause of infection. Following research involving whole-genome sequencing on the pathogen and big data processing, the gene sequence of each Listeria contamination found in a food product sample can now be individually identified. This gene sequence is specific to each source of contamination. The data from each case of illness and each Listeria monocytogenes-positive product sample found during official food control investigations can now be collected into a database. When someone gets ill, the authorities can identify through big data processing where the contamination came from, what the food product was and who the manufacturer is. "This has two consequences. It is easier to make a product recall targeted to the cause and eliminate the cause. Secondly, it dramatically increases the corporate responsibility of the businesses, because there is a chance that they will be identified. This wasn't possible before big data processing. Thus, digital data collection can bring about a big change."
The food industry isn't the first in line when it comes to digital transformation. "The industry is far behind other industries like the car industry. In the EU food industry, small and medium enterprises (SME) make up almost 99.2 per cent of all businesses, playing a particularly significant role. The majority of food businesses therefore have less money to invest into the digitalisation required to support the development of new products or services and to improve the production process." Besides, explains Sebők, the food industry is pretty traditional: "In many cases, even the digital data collection is difficult because the machinery is not equipped for digital data collection and transfer."
However, there is movement. "Digital transformation is becoming of primary importance in the food industry." As an example, Sebők points out that FoodDrinkEurope added a chapter on digitalisation in its last two annual Data and Trends reports. The latest report says 88 per cent of food companies are aware of the new opportunities digital transformation brings about. "There is a big unexploited opportunity in the food industry because many of the available solutions in other industries can be adapted to solve food problems relatively easy."
The same report states that 59 per cent of companies have the skills to harness digital transformation. So, the lack of widespread skills is a critical issue. "The real risk is that the industry will be limited by the lack of skilled people. Current employees need conversion training; without digital capabilities, they will have difficulty in implementing digital solutions. And you need managers to convey the digitalisation message to staff."
A barrier to the progress of digital transformation lies in the different languages used by the industry and the technology providers. "It is difficult for managers of food businesses to understand the language of information technologists. They have to understand the enabling capacities of different digital solutions. Thus, the industry benefits of digital transformation should be translated into the style and language used by food industry people."
"Vice versa, the technologists often do not understand the industry's problems. The solution providers may develop good applications, but they are not aware of the problems food producers are dealing with. There are many specific food requirements and legal requirements that have to be understood."
The two actors need to be brought together. "If we bring them together and get them to exchange ideas and talk to each other, then we will significantly increase the probability of a successful application. This is the concept of our masterclass which is a combination of food industry knowledge and ICT knowledge."
Sebők explains that in the EIT Digital Professional School Digitalisation and Industry 4.0 in Food Processing, business people and solution providers will jointly solve food industry problems with a digital solutions. "We think that this is the way to get digital transformation done, and stay competitive in the end."
This way, Sebők sees a future for the food industry that will be similar to car manufacturing - making safe, highly efficient, reliable customised products, for varied consumer needs, at acceptable cost.
The Digitalisation and Industry 4.0 in Food Processing course is being held on 1-3 June.