Finding the Next Food Innovation

April 3, 2017
Siemens invited a group of industry leaders to think about what food and beverage manufacturers must do to position themselves for the future.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a brainstorming event in New York last week that brought together thought leaders from all corners of the food and beverage industry. And, while I won’t name names, let’s just say I was in total awe of the people in that room. There were executives from major manufacturers and retailers, consumer and small business advocates, analysts, authors and futurists. It was a meeting of the minds, or as we say in Boston, a room full of ‘wicked smaht’ people.

The group had been brought together by Siemens to take part in an exercise that would challenge the participants to think about a future where food manufacturers were bringing new products to market faster while reducing inventory costs and increasing operational productivity. The challenge was to figure out how we got to this successful scenario. After three rounds of refining ideas, four teams made their pitches to the rest of the room.

There was no clear “winner” when all was said and done, but some very interesting themes emerged from the spirited discussions. First, the focus should begin and end with the consumer. As noted in a recent PMMI research report, the 2017 Trends in Food Processing Operations, the market is shaped by customers’ convenience and nutritional needs—such as on-the-go eating, clean labels and organic foods. Ultimately, we are in business for consumers. And we need to leverage social media, Big Data and communication technology to link customer feedback directly into the design, engineering and manufacturing processes.

Manufacturers also need flexibility on production lines, but that may require new kinds of control technology and automation. Not surprisingly, the suggestion that there is a need for more open standards-based systems came up a time or two. It would be great to add new systems on to enable more flexible production lines, but it was acknowledged that rip-and-replace of existing systems may be the most likely scenario.

That opened the door to a discussion about what a successful food and beverage company might look like in the future. And, it may be time to mimic what’s going on in other industries. Why not become the Zara of food and bev, one group suggested? Fashion retailer Zara uses small production runs to test markets without adding unwanted inventory, and uses social media to pull ideas directly from customers rather than depending on designers to come up with seasonal collections.

Another group echoed the sentiment that the industry needs to learn how to reinvent itself with all the energy and experimentation of a disruptive startup. Think about what Local Motors has done in the automotive space. It uses an open platform to enable a co-creation process for vehicle development and micro manufacturing where a car can be built in 20 hours using 3D printing technology. Or what ONE Aviation has done to change the aviation industry by closing the loop between engineering, design and production via a digital thread woven into the informational fabric of the product.

So, let’s start to think about how to apply such innovations to the food and beverage industry: Why not leverage urban farms to grow food close to the consumer, controlling the environment for the best quality outcome? Why not create a connected digital plant that will capture customer feedback and incorporate it back into recipes and packaging design? Why not leverage the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to provide traceability throughout the supply chain? And, instead of worrying about what the millennials will do to the workforce, why not give them mobile and virtual reality tools that will enable them to be more effective in their roles?

At the end of the night—which, by the way, took place in the beautiful Bouley Botanicals test kitchen in TriBeCa—the brainstorming session didn’t result in us solving any of the world’s current manufacturing problems. But it did open my eyes to the possibilities that could shape the future of our food.

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