Farm and Food 4.0: How Technology Is Transforming an Industry

Smart technologies are at the forefront of Industry 4.0. A company’s competitiveness hinges on its ability to incorporate AI, machine learning, robotics, and other innovations into everyday operative tasks. We’ve been studying how digitization has affected different industries. In the last part of the series, we examine the evolving food, beverage, and agriculture industries.

Successive industrial revolutions have impacted – and continue to impact – process industries such as pharmaceuticals, mining, and oil and gas. And in recent years, there has been a steady rise in smarter and more powerful systems to optimize the way food is harvested, processed, and packaged. There is tremendous scope for the inclusion of data in the farming process; not only to improve yield and profitability for the operator, but to ensure a safer and more sustainable food production supply chain for us all.

Setting the Table for Transformation

Regardless of size or scale of an operation, farmers today face challenges unlike any that came before. The biggest of these is in terms of supply and demand. According to the UN, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Also, arable land is becoming sparse as urbanization increases. With climate change to contend with and food waste a growing concern in many parts of the world – it was time for action.

But, actually meeting these challenges is a collaborative effort. As is the case in the Smart Factory narrative, governments and regulatory bodies, equipment manufacturers, and operators themselves seek innovative, game-changing solutions. The International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) smart farming standards for the agricultural industry span the entire supply chain – from farm to plate. That includes tools and technology standards, standards on soil quality, irrigation, and food safety management. Equipment manufacturers and researchers gather at large-scale events, such as the VDI Conference for Smart Farming or Agritechnica to forge and present smart farming solutions that meet sustainability goals and help farmers comply with changing regulation. But what exactly are these new innovations?

Smart Farming Technologies

Advancements in sensor technology and IT have led to an increase in farming efficiency and productivity. Precision farming is a more targeted approach to managing land and is already a trend in the industry. This means, rather than considering a field as a whole, farm operators are able to account for minute differences in soil structure and growth activity in very specific areas of the field. According to agfundernews.com, precision farming entered the frame back in the early 90s, with the introduction of GPS installed in tractors. This technology was first adopted by John Deere, but a steep learning curve for equipment manufacturers followed. GPS-assisted steering became widespread soon after, reducing time spent in the field and economize plowing, tilling, sowing, and fertilizing efforts. Farm and Food 4.0 was on its way.

20 years ago, a farmer would work tirelessly all day in the field to complete his daily duties. Nowadays driverless tractors can safely perform the work for them with greater precision. Automatically, the human error aspect from farming is removed. In fully autonomous tractors, on-board equipment consists of speed and motion sensors, GPRS, a CAN bus electrical system, and lasers. These lasers detect obstacles (even as small as stone) and the tractor will react accordingly – either by stopping or maneuvering around it. The only difference between fully autonomous and the so-called supervised autonomous tractor is that vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology is present in the latter.

Another innovation that presents farm operators with enormous cost and time saving opportunities is the introduction of drones into the field. Via a wireless connection and controlled by a pilot, drones can be used to get a birds-eye-view of the field. This can speed up crop inventories and is a more efficient way of monitoring crops for infestation or disease, analyzing the field, and checking irrigation. However, the most common use for the technology is to speed up the fertilization process. A remotely controlled drone will only apply the optimal amount – as instructed by the operator – of fertilizer. Not only does this increase precision of the application but will create cost savings and is better for the environment. By using image recognition, drones can even be trained to detect weeds. With further advancements in drones for agriculture, drones could one day detect a weed and actually retrieve it itself.

Safety, From Farm to Plate

Unsurprisingly, automation is a trend that runs through the entire supply chain. Subsegments of agriculture – like the dairy, ready-to-eat, and beverage industries – encompass automation techniques that can alleviate operating costs and improve productivity. This is also where safety and security come in.

Safety is a fundamental aspect of agriculture as well as the factory production of food and drink. The most common safety functions found in these industries are emergency shutdown systems, door interlocking, and turbomachinery control. In the age of what we’re calling Farm and Food 4.0, companies can take advantage of big data analysis and smart sensor technologies to able to detect inconsistencies in automation systems and make the necessary adjustments. Only in this way can companies remain in optimal production and alleviate safety risks.

Cybercrime has also forced its way into the food and agriculture sectors. And as production plants become more complex and networked, safety-related automation systems could protect against cyberthreats against hardware, operating systems, networking, and engineering. This could be the difference between thriving or failing in Food and Farm 4.0.

Growing Trends for The Future Farm

The ultimate aim of Industry 4.0, like any industrial revolution, is to increase productivity and performance while saving resources and reducing manual effort. And that is exactly what is being achieved and there is a sense that this is just the beginning. Much rests on a farmer’s or a food and beverage factory operator’s ability to invest (both in terms of willingness to adapt and financially) – in innovation. Another key enabler for true change in farming is the modernization of communication infrastructure in rural areas – namely advancements in 5G networks. This is responsibility of local governments who should make targeted investment based on the best interest of those involved in the food supply chain – that’s all of us!