Embedded growing in food production
One rapidly growing (pun intended) application for embedded computing can be found in the food production chain, where technology is driving efficiency, quality, and traceability improvement – from the farmer’s field to your dinner plate. To investigate I headed over to the Food Produce Show, brainchild of Jim Prevor, president of Produce Business magazine, to see what embedded innovations are currently being deployed and what further applications those in this exciting new market envisage for the years ahead.
Opportunely, I found worthy examples at every key stage of the food production process.
In the field, a term today I use quite literally, TopControl are pioneering intelligent productivity increase through very local processing. Their mobile PSC9100 Harvesting Suitcase is sited at the heart of the crop collection zone, weighing produce and collecting real-time data monitoring harvesting performance which is beamed directly back to a central StatisticsWeights server; this is then analysed and fed back to the producer given them access to unprecedented levels of production efficiency data previously the reserve of modern manufacturing plants.
Once harvested, it’s naturally critical that said produce must be kept in a strictly controlled environment. Known as the “cold chain”, the logistical path the produce takes from source to retailer may involve a number of vehicles and/or warehouses. Of course all in that cold chain will always claim to have maintained the precisely correct environment for maximum quality and minimum spoilage, but how do we monitor and control produce environment during transportation? The answer lies within embedded environmental monitors, loaded with sensors and travelling with the produce itself. Able to monitor temperature and humidity, products like the TempTale from Sensitech are retrieved from the produce at point of final delivery (or at any point in between) and wirelessly download their “story” by RF. Analysing the extensive data available at the simplest end enables retailers to prove if anywhere in the cold chain is falling short of requirement, though of course the overall achievement is to improve produce shelf-life, thus reduce wastage.
With produce naturally being highly perishable, the highest pressure on production management exists in food distribution centres, where any time spent “awaiting processing” becomes a significant percentage of its likely lifetime. The food industry is now benefiting from the introduction of computerised production management, with rugged industrial IP rated tablet and panel PCs enabling embedded computing technology to be placed at the heart of a hygienically sensitive operation. Products such as Freshware’s Produce Software Solution, manage produces journey through the distribution chain seamlessly and efficiently, again reducing wastage thus increasing profitability in an industry where margins are constantly squeezed.
An innovation I was not prepared for was the application is laser application technology directly onto non-edible areas of food produce, particularly exciting on those with especially large “real-estate”, such as a watermelon. Initially targeted as a replacement for the historically favoured self-adhesive labelling, what intrigued me about this application is what more can be printed, beyond produce attributes. John Bean Technologies share this inspiration, they envisage a future where advertising is printed directly onto produce, and incorporating bar or QR codes enabling retailers to print vouchers directly onto produce – perhaps this “advertising space” is even sold to a third party, providing additional revenue streams.
This revolution is happening already, but what more can be achieved? Whilst browsing the show I contemplated the hugely wasteful pesticide distribution methods currently implemented; not only is the pesticide itself poorly targeted, but the equipment required to deploy it, be that ground vehicles or (perhaps less so these days) crop dusting aircraft are environmentally unsound all on their own. I imagined a solution where drones can deploy pesticide at unprecedentedly accurate levels directly to crops, reducing material wastage. Those drones, powered by far cleaner electricity, can return to base to recharge or restock on pesticide then head back into the field. All whilst a top level monitoring system records exactly which areas have been treated to ensure no duplication. There remain some legal obstacles to the widespread deployment of drones but it’s inevitable that they will someday play their part in maximising food production efficiency.