Get smart - Examining the drinks industry’s evolution into the digital age - Focus

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Smart technologies are on the rise in a variety of sectors as technologies become ever more connective and automation promises market-wide change. Joe Baker investigates where technology has been providing a boost to the drinks industry and looks at what the future could hold.

Technology will provide both opportunities and disruption in the years to come

Technology will provide both opportunities and disruption in the years to come

With drinks companies set to face ever-more disruption in the future, smart technologies will become more important for driving efficiency in drinks manufacturing, tracing products along every aspect of the supply chain and marketing products for an increasingly tech-savvy consumer base. From smart factories to robots driven by artificial intelligence (AI), smart technologies are pushing the drinks industry into a new digital era. The speed at which such technologies are proving transformative can be difficult to keep track of, however; we explore the state of some of the more prominent of these technologies and how they are changing the industry.

Smart manufacturing: reducing costs through IoT-enabled solutions

Automation and internet of things (IoT) technologies are helping food and drinks manufacturers attain the benefits of the so-called 'fourth industrial revolution'. These include greater efficiency, reduced production costs and enhanced safety for staff due to increasing automation through robotics and smart technologies. 

Smart sensors introduced on packaging lines have simplified the filling of beverage packs in a range of sizes, allowing formats to be switched on the fly. They also collect data that enables drinks producers to monitor their supplies, as well as track the condition of filling equipment to facilitate predictive maintenance.

IoT-enabled solutions can also monitor transportation conditions for drinks in transit and provide more accurate and detailed record-keeping, ensuring products remain in compliance with safety regulations.

Big data: ensuring consistency across products

Big data can be a major driver for the drinks industry when it comes to improving insights across the supply chain. The development of enterprise resource planning software provides companies with an online platform that compiles real-time information and helps identify the best ways to optimise production.

Encompassing around 500 different brands and over 700,000 employees worldwide, The Coca-Cola Co is unsurprisingly no stranger to data analytics. The company leverages an algorithm known as the 'Black Book' model, to ensure its orange juice has the same year-round taste and quality, even outside orange-growing seasons. Coca-Cola does this by combining weather data, crop yields, acidity and sweetness ratings and satellite images, before identifying the best combination of factors to optimise juice production for consumers worldwide.

Experimenting with AI and robotic bartenders

AI allows computers to receive data and make actionable decisions, creating a major boon for the industry's supply chain. However, AI-powered technology is also being explored in a range of 'out-there' ways. 

In 2017, IBM and Cornell University teamed up to explore the possibility of creating new AI models that could help identify food hazards in dairy products - specifically, milk - before they can cause an outbreak. This involved sequencing and analysing the DNA of microbes in milk to create new AI-driven tools that could detect hazardous anomalies.

AI can also give drinks a new lease of life from a consumer and hospitality perspective. Launched last year, Robolab's Yanu is said to be the first portable, fully-autonomous bartending unit, using technology to take orders and payment, as well as to mix and serve cocktails.

Smart packaging: traceability and marketing

The deliberate mislabelling, dilution of or tampering with products before they reach consumers is a problem that costs the food and drinks industries billions every year. Subsequently, smart packaging solutions are being increasingly introduced in a bid to help companies track their products' validity along the supply chain.

UK-based Everledger and adhesive specialist Avery Dennison are using blockchain technology to create traceable wine labels. Each tamper-resistant Janela label has a unique serialised online identity paired with near field communication (NFC) technology. Retailers and customers are able to scan wine bottles with the label using an NFC-enabled device (such as a smartphone) to track the product's journey.

Drinks brands are also tapping into smart technologies for marketing gain. Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned Devils Backbone is experimenting with the use of augmented reality on packaging for three of its beer brands. Using an app, consumers are able to watch a 3D visualisation of packaging features through their smartphone camera. Elsewhere, Treasury Wine Estates recently announced that its Augmented Reality app, launched in 2017 initially on the 19 Crimes Australian red range, had broken the 3m downloads barrier.

Smart packaging can also be the foundation upon which new innovations emerge. In 2017, US-based Smart Cups launched a line of energy drinks packaged in cups using "3D-polycapsule printing delivery system technology". When water is added to the cup, the capsules activate and release an energy drink flavouring. 

Sugar reduction technologies

Rising concerns about the negative impact of sugar consumption have led to the introduction of the so-called 'Sugar Tax' in markets including the UK, with full-sugar CSDs squarely in the firing line. Many drinks companies have responded by re-formulating their CSDs to contain less sugar, sometimes through the use of sweeteners. Could technology help in this area?

Israeli start-up Better Juice has developed an innovative technology solution that reduces the amount of natural sugar in juice. Natural enzymatic activity in non-GMO micro-organisms is used by the tech to convert the fructose, glucose and sucrose in fruit into fibres and non-digestible natural sugars. According to the company, trials with several beverage companies revealed that the tech successfully reduced the amount of sugar in orange juice by between 30% and 80%.

What does the future hold?

Moving forward, companies will continue to develop technologies in a bid to answer the main problems facing the drinks industry. In particular, sustainability could be a focus, as food and drinks companies come under increasing pressure to reduce their environmental impact.

This could see the production of more technologies that help in the battle to cut our single-use plastic. Last year, US-based Clear Water Manufacturing introduced a machine designed to rapidly sanitise and refill recyclable bottles with water at retail and hospitality locations.

As blockchain, big data and AI technologies continue to improve, drinks companies will continue to find solutions to their largest problems while enhancing their market appeal to consumers.

This article originally appears in the April issue of Inside Drinks digital magazine.

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