The Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming an important part of the food industry, from production to transportation to retail sales. The IoT is contributing to better use of resources and greater productivity in the industry as well as improved safety for food products. Simply stated, the IoT is a network of technologies which can monitor the status of physical and other objects, capture meaningful data, and communicate that data over a wireless network to a computer in the cloud for software to analyze in real time and help determine action steps. Typically, each data transmission from a device is small in size but the number of transmissions can be frequent. The IoT involves many things interacting with each other to produce actionable information.
The temperature of a food product, for example, which is important to food safety, can be monitored throughout the supply chain until purchase of the product by a consumer.
More IoT applications have become feasible because the cost and size of sensor devices continues to decrease and their sophistication for measuring conditions keeps increasing. Cisco estimates that 500 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2030. (www.cisco.com/c/r/en/us/internet-of-everything-ioe/internet-of-things-iot/ Cisco and others also use the term “Internet of Everything” (IoE) which has a broader meaning than IoT that includes services such as a search engine, users and other objects. Cisco defines the IoE as the intelligent connection of people, places, data and things.)
The IoT will help the industry improve the operation of the supply chain starting with how food is grown to how consumers purchase food products. The IoT can improve the use of resources in growing food by helping apply water, fertilizer and pesticides in more precise quantities and locations and with better timing which will increase yields. Data analytics software can provide actionable information on a real time basis by combining information on current weather, the slope of the land, type of soil and exposure to sunshine with data captured by sensors measuring moisture, heat, chemicals and other conditions. The IoT can also help livestock farming be more productive in the use of water, energy, food and other resources and even help track the location of livestock.
The IoT can create more closely monitored environments in the food industry which should result in better food safety and less waste. Such visibility provides actionable information for better management of the supply chain. Sensors embedded in fields, vehicles carrying crops or food, production lines and grocery stores can be used to track temperature and other conditions for food in transit in the supply chain from the farm to a consumer. The use of IoT for logistics and communications throughout the supply chain can make food recalls faster and more precise. The location of tainted products can be identified more quickly.
The embedded sensors and data analytics software can enable better transportation route planning, more efficient inventory management and predictive maintenance alerts to prevent equipment malfunctions in manufacturing, transportation and other parts of the food industry supply chain. This will reduce cost and waste.
Since consumers are the end customers who eat food, the risks of product danger need to be mitigated as much as possible. What if an IoT device fails or the data analytics software provides erroneous information and a consumer becomes sick or dies? The liability in the supply chain up until the consumer stage can be primarily allocated by contract – but insurance will be the safety net, and the only feasible way to mitigate the risk at the retail stage.
IoT networks need to be designed and implemented with adequate security and privacy protection. A recent article predicts that security attacks on IoT devices will surge in 2017 (https://www.scmagazine.com/gazing-ahead-security-predictions-part-4/article/578979/)
A network failure or hacker attack could have serious consequences. For example, hackers recently changed chemical settings in a U.S. water treatment plant. (http://www.watertechonline.com/hackers-change-chemical-settings-at-water-treatment-plant)
A hacker could attempt an intrusion in the application of crop chemicals or in the mixture or addition of ingredients at a food processing plant. Sensors and other IoT entry points have such a small software footprint that implementing security is difficult without architectural changes which would impact the economics of the network (In information technology, A “smaller footprint” for software means that it needs less space in memory for storage and execution. Vendor AgilePQ believes it has security technology that can be implemented at an IoT entry point without changing the economics of the network.)
Ownership rights to data used in an IoT network can provide a competitive advantage. While some data may be from the public domain or licensed from third parties, a food industry business should try to own as much data as it can. The business that controls the most data will likely be the most successful.
The advances in sensing technology, the way that IoT physical components are combined into a network and the related data analytics software can have significant business value. There should also be innovation specific to the food industry for which intellectual property (IP) protection is important. Businesses need to think both offensively and defensively in creating an IP strategy so they have the freedom to operate without a license from a third party and also provide a barrier to entry by a competitor. A search of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) data base indicates there are already more than 900 patents issued in which the term “Internet of Things” appears and over 75 patents issued in which the term “Internet of Everything” appears.
The IoT is being used to make the food industry supply chain more visible to centralized management and to provide actionable information to help make the industry more efficient and to produce safer products for consumers. Deployment of an IoT network in the food industry supply chain can help reduce costs, waste and risks in each stage of the process.