Marcel Koks of Infor looks at how the right application of technology can help businesses to counteract the effects of the industry’s labor crisis 

Recent research from the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that the number of people employed in food manufacturing in the UK fell by 4000 between June 2022 and June 2023, down to 394,000. And, according to the Food and Drink Federation, the significant labor shortage that’s facing the food and drink manufacturing sector has cost businesses a staggering £1.4 billion over the last year, with some firms forced to reduce production due to unfilled vacancies. This has a knock-on effect on growth too, with businesses prevented from enhancing and expanding their operations.

To mitigate the negative impact of the labor crisis, more businesses are turning to technology for help, hoping to shore-up existing operations, and increasing automation to help build more sustainable and resilient businesses. But exactly which technologies can help and how can food and beverage businesses ensure they’re deriving maximum value from the technologies they are investing in, using them to address the specific challenges their businesses are facing daily?

The Internet of Things
One area where the industry seems to be investing more is the Internet of Things (IoT). Indeed, according to a study by ReportLinker, the value of the IoT and traceability for the food and beverage manufacturing sector is expected to reach $8.43 billion by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.5 percent.

Undoubtedly, the IoT has a vital role to play in optimizing operations for food and beverage manufacturers, helping businesses to secure that all-important visibility over manufacturing and logistics, boosting automation and increasing operational efficiency. The use cases for the IoT are myriad, with a multitude of sensors and systems capturing data from right across the business and feeding this back into the business.

Marcel Koks

In farming, for example, sensors can monitor the humidity of soil, triggering an alert when watering needs to take place. On the shop floor, equipment sensors can predict impending maintenance issues, reducing downtime and facilitating proactive maintenance programs. When it comes to food safety too, sensors and monitors can provide accurate data on production and storage, helping to reduce waste and maintain quality. And IoT-driven inventory management can help boost inventory efficiency, reducing shortages and over-supply, again helping to reduce waste. The possibilities are seemingly endless with the IoT, with businesses able to gather the crucial data to drive real improvements right across the business.

Smart use of data
That’s not to say that the IoT is a panacea for the industry. The IoT should be viewed as an enabling technology, one which allows a business to collect data from right across the organization. But it’s what the business does with this data next that can really make all the difference. When you have all this monitoring in place, it makes total sense to do smart things with the data. This is where analytics and data science come into the equation, with their ability to turn data into real, actionable insight that addresses head-on the very issues that matter most to the business. Such is the unpredictability and variability of the industry, it’s necessary to bring science into the equation to better predict and forecast, helping to manage the ever-present instability and uncertainty.

Success also depends on having the right data in the first place. IoT data alone isn’t enough, but bring in information from other business systems, including ERP, MES and warehouse solutions, for example, amalgamating it all within a centralized data lake and you can apply the necessary analytics. More crucially, add machine learning capabilities into the mix and what you get is intelligent, actionable insight.

Collaborative working
Clearly, many businesses don’t have the data science skills in-house, which is why it’s vital to work with the experts who can provide the enabling technology. But it’s very much a partnership. Machine learning can analyze all the data and tell the business exactly what it wants to know, but the ideas and the parameters that machine learning must consider can only come from the business itself. The experts can inspire business leaders with what’s possible, but it’s the business itself that needs to decide what exactly are the burning issues that it wants to address. This could be how to be more efficient, how to maximize yield, how to minimize waste, how to serve customers better, how to use less resources, how to maximize output – the possibilities are endless, but they need to be the factors that make a real difference to the business.

For example, yield improvement might be the highest priority for certain businesses. While technology providers can deliver the tools to help do this, it’s people within the business, those at the coal face, who are the experts in which parameters need to be monitored and analyzed for machine learning technology to make the optimum recommendations as to how the business can maximize yield.

Take goat cheese producer, Amalthea. For each cheese batch, Amalthea used to set a target yield based on practical or past knowledge of production. When a cheese batch deviated from the target yield or the right target yield wasn’t set, factory operators had to act and make changes to production to make the process more efficient. Production issues were identified by manually processing data and analyzing it on a weekly basis. With approximately 240,000 liters of milk processed each day, it was not optimal to wait a week or sometimes even a month to get insights and make the necessary system changes to optimize the yield. Through the application of machine learning, Amalthea can now not only see the yields per cheese batch in real time, but it also has direct insight into what contributors are causing a higher or lower milk yield so the operators can directly act on it. Yield deviation detection and explanation is now fully automated. Infor provided the enabling technology, but it was the experts within Amalthea who decided which parameters needed to be set to ensure the technology delivered the right insight.

With the pressing challenge of the industry labor shortage, businesses are looking to invest more in automation. But it’s important for food and beverage businesses to first identify where in the business it would be most beneficial to achieve this automation, with automation for automation’s sake not a wise investment. At the heart of this approach is doing more with the data you have, applying the right analytics and technology to the huge amounts of data we’re all dealing with to uncover intelligent, actionable insight that directly addresses the issues specific to an individual business. One size doesn’t fit all but done well, the right application of technology can inform decision-making and planning, boosting automation where it can make the maximum amount of difference and keeping food and beverage businesses one step ahead.

For a list of the sources used in this article, please contact the editor.

Marcel Koks is Infor’s Food Industry Strategy Leader. Infor is a global leader in business cloud software products for companies in industry specific markets. The organization builds complete industry suites in the cloud and efficiently deploys technology that puts the user experience first, leverages data science, and integrates easily into existing systems. Over 65,000 organizations worldwide rely on Infor to help overcome market disruptions and achieve business-wide digital transformation.