SUNDAY TIMES - Crunching the data to keep the carrots perfectly crunchy
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Sunday Times Opinion By Arthur Goldstuck, 2017-05-14 00:00:00.0

Crunching the data to keep the carrots perfectly crunchy

Anyone who thinks the future is arriving too fast should check the "sell-by" dates on the fresh food they buy. This is one of the categories of consumer purchases with the highest wastage rates in the world - and least reliant on hi-tech controls.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, about a third of the food produced for human consumption every year - about 1.3trillion kilograms - gets lost or wasted.

Most of the organisations forced to absorb such losses spend tremendous energy on tightening up their supply chains but little on advanced technology.

That is about to change, led not by businesses that understand food specifically, but by those that understand how to use technology to optimise the supply chain.

"When someone like Amazon gets into the food business, brick-and-mortar stores have to pay attention," said Jeff Brown, a vice-president of Dell Technologies and head of its Internet of Things division. "They have to improve the customer experience, and they have to reduce food wastage. IoT is one of the most obvious tools."

Speaking at the Dell EMC World annual conference in Las Vegas this week, he told Business Times that companies were already saving millions of dollars using the technology. Their strategies to achieve these benefits began not with technology, but with data.

"Most companies are managing many different food types in just five bands of refrigeration time and temperature, when they should be doing at least 12 different bands to refrigerate each food at an optimal level."

Brown pointed out that optimally freezing something as simple as carrots, for example, could increase its shelf life by 30%.

"If you open yoghurt and see water at the top, it's because it was refrigerated at the wrong temperature. There's nothing wrong with it, but the water has separated, and that becomes a customer-experience issue. The same can be said for any food group: underfreeze and it's a health issue; overfreeze and you shorten its life.

"The optimal band is where you are maximising the food quality and optimising longevity. You can only do that if you use technology to monitor and control the food on a mass scale, which is exactly what the IoT allows you to do, using sensors connected to control systems."

The benefits extend beyond customer experience. In the UK, Tesco has saved $7-million (about R94-million) a year in energy costs through optimising refrigeration.

"That wasn't even their goal; it was a bonus," said Brown. "Their huge success was the customer experience. It went off the charts because of customer satisfaction with the resultant quality."

A new low-cost IoT controller, the Gateway 3000, was launched at Dell EMC World. It can be deployed in food trucks, among other uses, to monitor food temperature along with factors such as humidity, position, vibration and even vehicle speed. Temperature is managed in real time rather than set in advance, resulting in both energy savings and enhanced food quality.

"It's pretty cool," said Brown. "We're taking retail people from nervous to chill."

Goldstuck is the founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter @art2gee