How can the coldchain prepare for the future?

What can organisations across the cold chain do now to mitigate disruption to our food supply chain in the future, asks Jason Murphy managing director, global retail at IMS Evolve.

Working closely with food retailers and the cold chain over the course of the pandemic has highlighted the importance of improved visibility and connectivity across the food supply chain. Historically, the supply chain has been made up of siloed stages acting as separate entities from farm to food aisle. However, the disruptions over the last two years has demonstrated that a unified approach to the supply chain is critical to ensure continuity. So, what can organisations across the cold chain do now to mitigate disruption to our food supply chain in the future?

Agility and Visibility
The economic landscape is ever evolving, as are the needs and wants of the consumer. Ensuring that new business models, strategies, and investments provide and enable agility and flexibility will prove fundamental in the cold chains ability to respond quickly to future change and mitigate potential disruption.

Furthermore, organisations within the supply chain should begin unifying processes and operations to enable end-to-end visibility, from the farm through to the supermarket shelf. Improving this visibility will help to expose blind spots and allow the different parts of the supply chain to be proactive in the avoidance of shortages and disruptions before they occur. It will also allow processes to be streamlined throughout the chain to maximise efficiency.

One of the reasons the food retail sector in the UK was able to adapt to disruptions to the global logistics chain so well during the pandemic was because it had already started to invest in that supply chain agility. Despite the unfounded panic-buying of toilet paper and pasta, in reality, we never faced the prospect of real food shortages thanks to forward planning and clever investment in technology that provided greater supply chain visibility. The cold chain mustn’t take its foot off the pedal, though; as much like customer requirements, technology is constantly evolving and so the food retail sector must continue to be at the forefront of innovation.

Data and Automation
Part of that forward planning should include implementing a solid data foundation to cold chain logistics and operations. Using advanced IoT technology, relevant data – such as temperature data or location information – can be shared, accessed and leveraged across the chain to ensure product provenance and traceability. This will not only increase product visibility, safety and quality, but will also further help to optimise processes and improve productivity and efficiency. IoT software can use the collected data to continuously look for inefficiencies in asset behaviour, schedule condition-based maintenance, drive predictive maintenance and identify root causes, such as temperature variation, that if unattended would lead to machine failure or spoiled product.

Jason Murphy managing director, global retail at IMS Evolve

By utilising these new insights on inefficient processes and asset efficiency that an IoT platform would reveal, suppliers and providers have advanced levels of control. Automated adjustments and alignments can be set and enacted automatically by the system in real-time to ensure a continuously optimised machine, without the requirement for human intervention. The technology can identify when issues are recurring or related, and automatically optimise the performance of critical machines. For example, refrigerators can be continuously monitored to ensure ingredients across the supply chain are stored at the correct temperature. These smart automation strategies can be applied across processes, operations and machines to drive maximum efficiency and effectiveness throughout the supply chain.

Attainable and Achievable
There are clear benefits to investing in new supply chain technology to increase visibility and mitigate future disruptions, but one of the major obstacles preventing uptake has historically been the costs associated. The cold chain itself has very slim profit margins, so any large upfront costs are often prohibitive. However, there are technologies and platforms available that deliver the desired visibility and automation right across the supply chain, without costly new infrastructure.

These IoT solution can integrate with existing legacy and modern equipment, meaning they essentially create a virtual software layer that connects to assets and collects and processes hundreds of thousands of data points from sensors, controls and systems across the supply chain in real-time. This controls-agnostic approach means that deployment and integration of the software is rapid, scalable and less time and cost intensive than traditional digital transformations. This is because it can be achieved without huge start-up costs, as agnostic solutions enable connectivity to any asset, regardless of type, manufacturer or age. Ultimately, this technology provides the platform for change and enables suppliers and providers to unlock instant control.

The pandemic has shown us that supply chains can be precarious, but that proper planning and futureproofing of supply chain operations can help to mitigate any serious disruptions. The food retail sector did well to avoid major food shortages during the past two years, but it mustn’t be complacent; to prepare for the future, the cold chain must start looking to the benefits of data and digitalisation to give them greater visibility and control over the food supply chain and, ultimately, mitigate potential problems in the future.

Jason Murphy was the UK operational risk manager for Tesco, where he worked for over a decade to develop new processes to mitigate risk and drive digital transformation. He is now the managing director of Global Retail at IMS Evolve, where he helps deliver IoT solutions for some of the biggest supermarkets in Europe and North America.

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