Will artificial intelligence revolutionise the food manufacturing industry?

Artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on business was a key talking point at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (Davos 2017). Elliot Gardner looks at the ways in which the technology can be used within the food manufacturing sector.


Artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on business was a key talking point at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (Davos 2017).

Speaking at an AI panel at Davos 2017, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discussed how simple it was to eliminate human input altogether: “its augmentation or replacement, that’s a design choice. You can say replacement [of humans] is the goal, or you can say augmentation is the goal.”

While Microsoft are developing tech to aid with human interaction, others may be less willing to design AI machinery that interacts with humans, instead opting to replace them altogether.

However, the way AI is currently being developed is to work alongside individuals. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty at the panel psays they are 'in service' of them: “There are some jobs that will be wholly replaced by automation.

“But most of us will be working with these systems. That’s how most of the interaction will be.”

According to Infosys’s research report 'Amplifying Human Potential: Towards Purposeful Artificial Intelligence', in the coming years, the food manufacturing industry is set to be one of the most affected sectors by the implementation of AI technologies. The report indicates that early adopters of AI can expect revenue increases of 39% by 2020, while still retaining or retraining 80% of their existing employees. So it appears clear that those already implementing or considering the technology could be set to embrace the biggest returns at the start of the coming decade.

Sorting out the sorting system

According to the Infosys report, companies within the fast moving consumer goods market are some of the most likely to report that AI has already disrupted their industry.

One of the simplest ways the processed and fast food markets can be optimised is by improving the production line. Despite nearly all areas of the line being highly automated already, advocates of AI claim that smarter machines could revolutionise the industry, substantially reducing food waste and saving millions year on year.

Manufacturers of food sorting machines TOMRA advocates the use of AI during the food sorting stage of the production line. There are two potential methods of optimisation.

"AI can sort potatoes into those set for French fry production, or those better suited to crisp or potato wedge products."

Speaking to FoodOnline, TOMRA raised the case of potatoes used for French fry products. Potatoes deemed too small or misshapen for fries, or fries that are too long, small, or thin will be discarded. However, an intelligent machine could take into account data detailing the minimum standard of quality that members of the public are willing accept from their French fries, allowing for a greater number of misshapen fries to be accepted into the end batch. Similarly, AI can sort potatoes into those set for French fry production, or those better suited to crisp or potato wedge products, meaning less waste will be created in the first place.

Making fast food faster

One of the more traditional criticisms of AI is its potential to put low-skilled employees out of work. While the evidence suggests that the implementation of the technology creates more jobs than it replaces, it is true that there is the chance for a significant swathe of obsolescence in food manufacturing employment.

Momentum Machines is a San Francisco-based company that claims to eliminate the need for fast food burger cooks. The 24ft² machine-powered burger assembly line is capable of creating 400 burgers an hour. Production is only started after an order is placed, revolutionising an industry eponymously associated with speed. It could save companies hundreds of thousands in worker wages, but potentially leave tens of thousands without a job.

Intelligent cleanliness - next to godliness?

The University of Nottingham’s artificially intelligent sensor system for the cleaning of food manufacturing equipment is a demonstration of how all aspects of industry can be affected by the dawn of artificial intelligence. According to the university, £100m a year can be saved simply through the optimisation of equipment cleaning, which currently accounts for 30% of energy and water use in the sector. It can also take up to five hours out of every working day.

Safety and hygiene laws dictate a certain standard of cleanliness in food manufacturing that must be adhered to, and current cleaning models assume the worst that all areas require an intensive clean. The university is assessing the potential of using an artificially intelligent inspection systems, equipped with ultrasonic and optical sensors, to reduce cleaning times and resources by 20%-40%.

While artificial intelligence is currently a hot topic across all sectors globally, the food and drinks market looks to be one of the most immediately affected industries. Companies are already commenting on the changes noticeable in their marketplace. It appears as though whether the industry wants it or not, it must be prepared to embrace the coming artificial revolution.