As a topic, digitalisation and food covers much more than just ordering online from a delivery service and posting pictures of your lunch on social media. Apps that let you track your delivery in real time, smart fridges and digital supply chains featuring highly efficient schedules and minimal interruptions – these are already perfectly normal. And it’s just the beginning. Digitalisation is dominating our food culture and producing large amounts of data related to purchasing, consumption and behaviour patterns. Much more than people can keep track of on their own. The answer is self-learning algorithms that work with ‘big food data’. These recognise patterns and will soon know when, what and where we eat – with ovens, refrigerators and multifunctional blenders featuring vast data storage capacities.
An increasing number of manufacturers in the food industry are also putting their money on digitalisation. Technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics, cloud computing and smart sensors have the potential to change production processes in the long-term. The benefits are clear: enhanced product quality, lower energy consumption and improved processes.
Digitalisation as an opportunity to improve planning
Digitalisation can already be found all along our food’s supply chain. Data is generated at every point through which each product and its ingredients passes. This creates a forecasting system that allows planning all the way back upstream, from fork to farm. These forecasting possibilities are also a great opportunity to reduce food waste. Retailers, suppliers and restaurateurs alike can use the data for things like improving their calculations – how much milk to buy next week, for example, or how many steaks to order – and only produce or offer those amounts. METRO also has a demand-based supply chain strategy to keep inventories as high (or low) as required to meet customers’ needs: Integrated Planning.
‘Today, a supermarket can calculate with 70% probability how much milk it will move off the shelves next Wednesday. And in future, a food truck will be able to use scaling software to figure out fairly precisely how many pastries it can sell on a rainy Friday morning in April in XY Street in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood. The pastries will be made with wholewheat flour, because the software knows that 80% of the street’s residents like wholegrains,’ says food activist, publicist and consultant Hendrik Haase in an interview with SZ.de. METRO expert Dr Volker Glaeser shares this assessment: ‘In an increasingly digitalised world, we are helping our customers – the independent restaurateurs – to understand digitalisation and data, to implement the elements of data optimisation that are most important for them, and thus to improve their business. Where do the customers who visit my website come from? How can I stand out better from the competition? Is my menu calculation on target? What’s the best way to book tables in order to maximise capacity? These are all questions that we can answer using our digital tools to give our customers a digital helping hand.’
From spray-on codes and compressed air to blockchain
Most consumers are not aware of how food is impacted by digitalisation on its way to the markets. One example is the bean scanners positioned above the conveyor belts in processing plants, which instantly pick out the beans that are not green enough or have bad spots that indicate they are probably not fit for consumption. A compressed air system then removes these beans from the belt. Researchers are also working on edible ‘crypto-anchors’. Reminiscent of invisible ink, these scannable codes can be sprayed onto food and are safe to eat. Codes like these make the source and shipping route of each individual banana completely traceable. Blockchain technology – using a decentralised, chronologically updated database – makes it possible to pinpoint precisely where a box is at any given moment, where it came from and where it is needed.
AI in the kitchen
Robotic kitchens equipped with hands that assist with cooking are not so very far off. A system unveiled at the 2019 Hannover Messe trade fair is linked to over 2,000 recipes and is also designed to deliver the ingredients as orders are placed. The intelligent robot hands mimic chefs’ movements to prepare the meals. Canteen kitchens, which have to prepare a large number of meals in a hurry according to a strictly defined system, could in future be particularly good candidates for this innovation.
The tech units at METRO, Hospitality Digital and METRO Digital, develop smart tools for the hospitality industry that can be used for staff planning, calculating the cost of goods, table reservations or a restaurant’s online presence with its own website.
Connected, intuitive technologies are meant to take more and more of the work out of cooking, both in the hospitality industry and in our home kitchens. This includes extractor hoods that automatically adjust their suction strength, and cooking sensors that stop pasta water from boiling over. Ovens can already be opened using a voice command via Alexa or Google Assistant. With the help of a smartphone app, the trainable oven learns its user’s favourite roasting times or cake-baking preferences. Tomorrow’s fridge can even be operated when you’re out and about using a smartphone app. Eventually, it will also learn when we are likely to get hungry – with at least some degree of certainty. But quirky tastes and unforeseen cravings are still expected to be part of the human experience – automation or no automation.
Book recommendation: ‘Food Code’
The digital revolution has arrived on our plates: in ‘Food Code – Wie wir in der digitalen Welt die Kontrolle über unser Essen behalten’ (‘Food Code – How we retain control over our food in the digital world’) (published in German by Verlag Antje Kunstmann), food activist Hendrik Haase and journalist Olaf Deininger explore the digital transformation of our culinary culture. They conducted research at industry laboratories, university think tanks and food start-up garages, and peeked through tech giants’ back doors and into the new delivery services’ ghost kitchens. The book shows how digital technologies are changing the way we consume food and presents both the opportunities and the risks brought about by this transformation.