Waste continues to be a major problem in the food industry, with 9.5 million tonnes of edible food discarded each year in the UK alone. Even though it costs the UK billions of pounds each year to manage this wastage, the methane emissions released from food waste also pose an environmental concern, accounting for roughly 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Therefore, it’s in every business’s best interest to conserve as much food as possible to prevent so much of it from being wasted, and further perpetuating these social, economic and environmental problems.
Luckily, new emerging technologies can help businesses - both in and out of the food sector - drastically reduce waste and increase efficiency. Implementing the right automation solutions and innovative technology can lead to significant cost savings and more sustainable operations. This short article outlines some of the ways that business owners can leverage technology and automation to lower their food waste levels.
Automating manual tasks
Transitioning to tech-led operations doesn’t just reduce waste, but it can enable you to get a firmer grip on your workforce cost optimisation. Inventory management, data entry and analysis, stock taking, cashflow predictions, and many other manual, time-intensive tasks can be entrusted to smart AI-driven software and technology. The beauty of this technology is that it has built-in machine-learning capabilities that can recognise patterns and refine outputs for increased accuracy.
Over time, this tech will begin to recognise inconsistencies between food sales and stock levels, calculating accurate profit margins and adjustments to ensure as much food is conserved and used.
Implementing tech solutions minimises the need for manual supervision, although it is recommended that employees cast a watchful eye over the output to ensure legitimacy. As a result of this change, businesses will see substantial cost and time savings when employees can be liberated from manual, repetitive work, and left to focus on higher-value tasks. AI and automation enable reductions in overheads, allowing businesses to meet other pressing needs such as client prospecting, marketing, payroll and accounting, although many aspects of these tasks can be automated.
Implementing smart IoT sensors
Internet of Things (IoT) sensors are one of the most promising technologies for reducing food waste. These small, cost-effective sensors - powered by tech ranging from Bluetooth and WiFi to RFID and GPS - can be placed at various designated touch points throughout a facility to collect real-time data on food inventory levels, equipment performance, and environmental conditions.
For example, smart fridges can monitor and regulate temperatures, sending alerts when they exceed thresholds. Integrated networks of IoT sensors can track (in real-time) levels of ingredients, prepared foods, and long-life goods, among others. This allows food businesses to gain unprecedented visibility into their operations, identify waste-causing issues quickly and prevent losses.
Inventory management software
Inventory management is a major pain point for many food businesses. Manual, error-prone processes often lead to excess stock of some items and shortages of others, with out-of-date or spoiled ingredients often overlooked. Businesses need to ensure that a robust inventory management system is in place.
Inventory management software automates stock tracking across a company's supply chain, providing real-time visibility into stock levels and ingredient usage across multiple locations. The system automatically generates purchase orders and delivery schedules to optimise the food ordering and delivery processes.
By eliminating gaps and redundancies in inventory, businesses avoid over-ordering, shortages, and last-minute purchases at higher prices. In date and usable food is used more effectively, and fewer unusable items get discarded and spoiled.
Advanced data analytics
The wealth of data generated by IoT sensors, inventory software, and other systems enable more informed decision-making through advanced analytics. Analytics software that visualises top-level data from various systems allows food businesses to make the most strategic, actionable decisions to minimise food waste and identify cost inefficiencies.
Analytics can pinpoint recurring inventory gaps, menu items with high spoilage rates, peak production times, and other insights. Operations managers can use this intelligence to fine-tune purchasing, production planning, staff scheduling, and other key processes. In turn, data-driven changes will reduce over-ordering, ensure ingredients stay fresh, guide menu planning, and match staffing levels to sales volumes.
Enabling predictive maintenance
Unplanned downtime due to equipment failure is another major contributor to food waste. Contamination risks and spoilages are more frequent when production halts unexpectedly or when ingredients are not able to be kept at optimum temperatures.
With predictive maintenance powered by IoT sensors and analytics, issues can be identified early and repairs scheduled well in advance. Instead of running equipment until it fails, predictive algorithms facilitate maintenance at the optimal time, preventing unexpected downtimes during peak service hours.
By scheduling repairs and service strategically, food companies avoid contaminating food and maintain better control over freshness and quality.
Greater supply chain visibility
Food businesses often don’t have complete visibility into up stream and downstream supply chain operations. As such, this often leads to unexpected wastage as they often don’t order the right amount of produce, and cannot make accurate logistics plans. However, by breaking down silos across the supply chain with the help of technology, this gap may soon be bridged.
Solutions like real-time shipment tracking, dynamic routing, and alignment of transaction records and product movements across the supply chain allow businesses to optimise their operations. By integrating these technologies together, a more transparent supply chain can be created.
Suppliers, producers, distributors, and buyers can gain an end-to-end comprehensive view of where products are and what decisions to make. When optimised, these processes lead to streamlined production levels, fewer shipping delays, and better coordination across parties, thus leading to reduced waste due to supply chain inefficiencies or backlogs.
Creating a culture of sustainability
While technology paves the way for significant waste reduction, cultural change is still essential. The most successful businesses implement automation and analytics solutions as part of a strategic focus on sustainability.
Motivating and encouraging teams to proactively identify waste factors and process bottlenecks is vital. Employees should be encouraged and incentivised to bring cost-saving and waste-reducing ideas to the table, with management responsible for spearheading the change. The cultural transition must be instigated at the director level.
A collaborative, engaged and transparent ethos amongst the team highlights waste reduction opportunities that technology makes possible.
Business leaders that can successfully embrace and leverage automation and technology will gain a distinct competitive advantage by lowering costs and creating more sustainable operations. With the right balance of integrated technology and alignment in culture and ethics, food businesses can shrink their carbon footprint while bolstering food conservation.