5G and the recipe for a more nimble, data-driven food industry

5G and the recipe for a more nimble, data-driven food industry.

Whether you work in a restaurant, at a bar, eat out regularly—or even occasionally —or just buy groceries, it's no secret that the food and beverage supply chain faced enormous pressure during the Covid-19 crisis. Not only were there initial shortages of basic grocery items due to consumer stockpiling, but there were also rapidly changing purchasing patterns aimed at reducing social contact to contend with. And as the industry responded to the crisis, bars and restaurants closed or limited their services, consumers adapted to cost and availability challenges by modifying their choices in a variety of ways.

One way consumers adapted is by cooking more. According to a report by Hunter PR, 54% of Americans are cooking more than they did pre-Covid-19 and more than a third of home cooks discovered new ingredients and products outside of their loyalties to well-established brands. In addition, an article published by Eater suggested that more food—whether fresh, frozen or processed—was being sold directly to consumers rather than to restaurants, affecting the type and size of packaging. Not only that, but the way consumers shopped also changed. According to a survey by Disqo, more customers shopped online or opted for curbside pickup than ever before.

As a result of these rapid shifts in consumer behavior, the food and beverage industry needed to adapt—quickly. Below, we'll take a look at how the future of 5G networks could do even more to help the industry innovate, create more streamlined, nimble processes, and enable better insight and control of products along their journey—all of which could help to improve food safety and more.

Rows of loaves of freshly baked bread going down an assembly line.

In order for the industry to become more flexible and responsive, increasing the level of automation is critical. Operational efficiency and cost reductions are industry lifelines.

How automation can improve flexibility and efficiency.

The food and beverage industry can be manually intensive, which is why is may come as no surprise that, according to an August 2021 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the food manufacturing industry employed over 1.6 million people.

In order for the industry to become more flexible and responsive, increasing the level of automation is critical. Operational efficiency and cost reductions are industry lifelines. In fact, a recent McKinsey study found that the food processing and handling equipment sector grew more rapidly than almost any industrial market, providing the processing systems and equipment that enable the industry to manage food products’ journey from the farm via the factory to the consumer. And by using 5G technology, companies throughout the supply chain could not only gain greater control and flexibility, but they could potentially benefit from greater quality and safety measures.

Better traceability for safety and quality control.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced the development of a “Strategic Blueprint” which outlined plans to use technology to “create a more digital, traceable and safer food system”—and included leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). The blueprint built on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which mandated controls on food allergens, sanitation and other controls, in addition to process control of parameters such as product formulation and temperature during manufacturing operations.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first swept across North America, the FDA was just days away from releasing the blueprint. However, like many in the industry it serves, the FDA realized that more could be done. So the organization has since revised its blueprint based on key learnings from Covid-19. Traceability, used in tandem with AI tools, could provide greater supply chain visibility, thus helping the industry predict the kind of imbalances that can cause shortages of certain provisions. It could also help prevent food waste by diverting deliveries to where they are most needed—offering the potential for a more agile and resilient system.

5G throughout the food journey.

So how might 5G help revolutionize the manufacturing and distribution of food and beverages—and also help improve food safety and traceability? There's no single answer because of the wide range of applications for 5G, but in one scenario, smart tags assigned at the farm could store all the relevant data about produce, for example. This would allow details like harvest date (or the identity and history of an animal if you were tracking livestock) to be included and tracked. Then, sensors in the truck could relay logistics information over a nationwide 5G network, noting departure times, anticipated arrival at the factory, onboard temperature and humidity levels, and more – all of which would be saved to the data records of that particular batch of ingredients. This way, if problems arise later, products could be traced back to their exact source and time of dispatch.

Throughout the process, a 5G-enabled cloud-based control system could continue to log parameters of every ingredient in every batch of the product, documenting all the key process data and preserving traceability.

In a factory setting, 5G sensors could allow for the development of fully automated systems that enable robotic "employees" to assess ingredients for quality and compliance, then weigh them out and deliver them to the production line via autonomous guided vehicles or intelligent robotic vehicles, at the exact time they’re needed. Throughout the process, a 5G-enabled cloud-based control system could continue to log parameters of every ingredient in every batch of the product, documenting all the key process data and preserving traceability.

For manufacturers that produce different types of items or variants for select customers, the 5G IoT system could change the recipe and the ingredients reaching the production line to switch instantaneously to the new product without significant delay or waste.

5G & enhanced consumer solutions.

As the power of 5G unfolds, we can imagine more possibilities when the food leaves the factory. Whether meat, produce, or other ingredients are destined for a wholesaler or a supermarket, a restaurant chain, or an assembler of recipe boxes, they could easily be tracked and logged at every point along the way. And if shortages were detected in certain areas, 5G technologies could support rapidly redirecting to places where the need is greatest.

Customers could also benefit, not only in terms of food quality and safety because of the improved traceability of their food, but also from more flexible, customizable delivery options.

But the benefit isn't for wholesalers and retailers alone. Customers could also benefit—not only in terms of food quality and safety because of the improved traceability of their food, but also from more flexible, customizable delivery options.

In fact, 5G could mean a future of seemingly unlimited options for customers. Rather than relegating shoppers to a one-size-fits-all online recipe box, you could allow your customers to create truly custom recipe boxes that meet their family’s diverse dietary requirements. Grocery deliveries could be picked and packed entirely without human intervention. 5G-enabled vending machines could be stocked automatically by robots that never run out of any options. Automatic order fulfillment in fast food or drive-through restaurants could become a reality – and food delivery apps could elevate their contactless services in ways you haven't even imagined yet.

All of these advancements could one day become possible with a 5G-managed food supply chain.

We built our 5G network to give you an advantage today.

With America’s largest and fastest 5G network, T-Mobile® for Business is ready to help manufacturers like you unleash the power of 5G now and prepare for the emerging use cases of the future.

We offer a collaborative approach, building customized solutions to help you get ahead of the 5G curve faster. Lean into 360° support from a team of experts dedicated to helping your business create efficiencies—and supercharge operational results.

T-Mobile® for Business has an ambitious vision for fueling innovation in manufacturing. To continue exploring 5G-fueled transformations across the manufacturing ecosystem, visit our industry webpage today.

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