Intelligent barcodes transform food supply chain
Our expert's opinion
"With growing challenges related to food safety, labour shortages and the demand for transparency it is time for the food industry to use the advantages of Big Data. Intelligent bar codes can be the positive answer to these challenges the industry needs."
- Lien Vertommen, Senior Associate
The Next Generation Of Barcodes
There is a “perfect storm” of challenges brewing in the food industry. The increasingly critical need to guarantee food safety, labor issues and growing consumer demand to know the origins of their food are converging to create a pivotal crisis moment for grocery and restaurant businesses. The key is to leverage technology to solve long-term industry problems.
Barcodes have an important role in overcoming obstacles and turning these challenges into opportunities, by playing a part in new integrated technology solutions. Barcode technology has remained relatively simple, with thermal printers using analog printing to capture information. RFID technology elevates barcodes to a smarter, more robust way of capturing data with the capability of carrying information throughout the supply chain. With RFID, food retailers have a clear view of both product availability and remaining shelf life throughout the supply chain.
But RFID labels are not a standalone solution. Capturing data is just the first step – the ultimate objective is utilizing that information across the supply chain to ensure food safety and compliance, inventory management and consumer transparency. This goal is achievable through robust, integrated technology solutions that encompass intelligent labels, hardware, software, applications and services.
Enter Big Data. “Big data” are buzzwords in every industry, but its application to the food industry isn’t immediately evident. While it often pertains to websites that collect and purpose personal profiles for targeted marketing, big data as a technology is very relevant to the food industry in that it pertains to collecting and using information. Barcodes collect data, but to maximize their effectiveness, they need the power of hardware and software to be part of the big data conversation.
The time is right for a comprehensive revolution in food industry technology. First, food safety has never been more important than it is today. It seems that cautionary tales present themselves on a weekly basis; it’s not a question of “if” anymore, but “when.” Which brand will be the next to see its share values drop because of a contaminated supply shipment?
Factor in today’s hyper-enlightened consumer, and information on the provenance of our food is becoming not just a “nice-to-know” but a “must-have.” Customers want to be assured not only that their food is organic, but also informed about what farm it’s from and under what conditions it was processed.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, due to wage inflation and worker shortage, the basic labor that grocery and restaurants have relied upon is less available and affordable. Adding technology to the “back-of-the-house” also frees up clerks to make the foods customers are increasingly grabbing on the go, or to help consumers in the store, markedly improving the customer experience, be it directing them to a particular aisle or helping them reach items on a high shelf.
The apparel industry was early-to-the-game in adopting enterprise supply chain solutions as core to distribution, logistics, high-speed processing and real-time inventory management. Initially enabled by barcode labels, these industries have seen exponential ROI through scalable technology solutions that embrace not only intelligent labels, hardware and software, but are now moving to robotics and the cloud as well.
The food industry, on the other hand, has been historically behind the curve in employing new technology to meet the increasingly difficult challenges it faces. Where other industries continue to look to hardware, software and applications, grocery store clerks are still restocking based on which shelves look bare. In kitchens at quick-service-restaurants, staffers often still hand-write, prep, use and sell by dates, often on tape.
The food industry is realizing that it’s time to take a page out of the logistics and distribution playbook. While it may not be obvious, logistics of manufacturing apparel and managing inventory have much in common with getting food from farm to plate, with issues of perishability and food safety compliance regulations being the clearest differentiators. The many similarities lie in the need to have access to information at every point along the supply chain in order to act on it in real-time. In apparel, the concern might be relative to in-stock numbers. For food, the issue may be related to sell-by dates. For both, immediate response is required to meet the tantamount needs of the end-consumer.
Food businesses are finding greater accuracy and efficiency by employing advanced barcode technology that is more aligned with how manufacturing sectors have been using it – through integrated, scalable technology solutions. They are finding that quantifiable ROI lies in efficiencies of using technology to collect data and then utilizing it to move products, quickly, efficiently and most important for food - safety.
Grocery stores offer the prime example of how currently-available integrated hardware, software, printing and applications technology changes the game. These retailers must not only maintain sufficient stock of thousands of products, they must also monitor and maintain highly perishable inventory such as meat, fish, poultry and produce, all while tracking sell-by dates on every item in the store. Meeting these demands means that grocery stores face a significant labor cost, and volatility at any point along the supply chain can disrupt the delicate balance they must maintain to achieve already thin margins.
Robust technology solutions for the food industry provide the additional benefits of reducing food waste, improving data accuracy and introducing software-as-a-service to a sector that is hungry to embrace new technology.
In developing solutions that embrace these major challenges that the food industry faces, I focus on the power of “and” in empowering groceries, convenience stores and restaurants to operate in a way that is both safe and profitable. No longer do these business owners have to choose between increasing their workforce to ensure food safety or risking not meeting safety and compliance standards by cutting back on labor. There is no need to continue to be totally reliant on judgement calls or potential human error.
Intelligent labels enable integrated technology solutions to overcome the challenges faced by groceries, convenience stores and restaurants. The next generation of RFID-enabled barcodes is at the center of integrated technology solutions that harness the power to big data for the food industry supply chain by capturing relevant information that can be used significantly improve operations.
Source: The Barcode News