UK food and drink manufacturing typically runs on a dynamic, efficient just in time (JIT) model, but what happens if something acts to disrupt this?
For many customers in February 2018 the unthinkable happened: KFC ran out of chicken. This was the catastrophic end result of a chain of events that began when the company switched suppliers.
If the industry relies so heavily on a model that, in worse case scenarios, seriously impacts the supply chain, is there a technological solution?
Would increased digitalisation of food manufacturing help to prevent such crises occurring in future?
Why Do Manufacturers Rely on Just in Time?
The idea behind JIT is to eliminate waste. Food and drink is largely perishable, so it makes sense to be able to move it as swiftly as possible from production facilities to supermarket shelves.
Even less perishable items are moved quickly, because to have extra warehousing means more expenditure. Consequently, factories and depots in the UK have the capacity to handle around 24 hours worth of what is produced.
This is why recent government plans to stockpile goods, in the event of Brexit causing disruption, have been met with widespread dismissal, if not incredulity.
However, the heavy reliance on JIT also means that supply chains are vulnerable should unforeseen disruption occur, as with the issues to do with KFC.
Should Food and Drink Manufacturing be Digitalised?
The food manufacturing sector is one of the least digitalised. Could the food and drink supply chain benefit from greater digitalisation?
While digital technology cannot expand storage capacity, or extend the lifespan of perishable goods, it can tighten up supply chains and offer greater visibility to suppliers and buyers
Innovations in areas such as last-mile logistics will mean the spread of mass customisation to food manufacturing.
More fundamentally, the increase in agility via digitalisation offers greater protection for supply chains, making disruption less likely, or at least easier and quicker to deal with.
Research is currently underway to see how the Internet of Things can help with food traceability. Once applied to supply chains, this should help to improve efficiency while reducing waste.
In the future, digitalisation will be able offer greater clarity regarding provenance, something consumers are increasingly drawing on to make food purchasing decisions
Already the Soil Association is benefiting from the adaptation and application of blockchain technology in the design of an interactive certification mark. This can provide live information to a smartphone or other device about a certified product and its journey from the farm to the supermarket.
Currently the food and drink manufacturing sector has yet to benefit from widespread digitalisation, or to see a specific producer or supplier adopting a game-changing app.
With research and developments ongoing, it is only a matter of time.