The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is transforming the food industry, in ways both large and small, but the real action is taking place at the network edge.

Today’s supply chains has many “edges” –locations where real-time monitoring and intelligence can be deployed to help improve food safety, quality and integrity, production efficiency or all of the above.                                                                     

So, what can companies do at the edge?

For starters, real-time farm field monitoring ensures optimal irrigation and treatment. Data gathered and analyzed during first-stage field processing helps inform inventory and pricing decisions before the product is even shipped. Monitoring and tracking data during transit helps ensure temperature conditions are safe and optimal, while alerting distributors to delays in arrival. In-line quality testing right on the production line identifies a potential quality or safety issue before the product ever leaves the plant, avoiding a catastrophic recall.

Similar opportunities exist at every step, from processing and packaging to warehousing and distribution, retail stocking and even potentially reaching into a consumer’s “smart home.” This enables a complete genealogy of food ingredients, custody, processing steps, blending, transportation and storage temperatures, in-line quality monitoring, product tracking and more. Edge data can drive completely autonomous processes that optimize production in real time, without human intervention.

All the data gathered at these disparate edges can be sent up to private or public clouds or data centers, where it is aggregated and analyzed to drive planning and logistics for optimization and continuous improvement.

What’s driving innovation at the edge?

In a word, necessity. The food industry has a complex supply chain with many different sources, hand-offs and endpoints. At every point, there are factors that impact food freshness, taste, productivity and cost. And, traceability throughout the entire supply chain is essential to ensure food safety and regulatory compliance. Placing real-time intelligence at each of these points helps maintain the highest quality while controlling costs to maximize slim margins.

The emergence of the intelligent edge is not without challenges. As the sheer number of sensors and other edge devices multiplies, so does the challenge of managing it all. They must be kept up and running, regularly updated, and when a failure occurs, must be repaired or replaced. New sensors or devices must be added to applications. And, the security of the data gathered or produced must be protected.

What should run at the edge?

Companies also need to make critical decisions regarding what applications to deploy at the edge and which to keep in the cloud, data center or control room. The edge may consist of a combination of applications, including terminal, supervisory and human machine interface (HMI), batch, historian and downtime/overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) applications, connected to smart sensors and edge devices. These will feed data to track and trace, manufacturing execution systems (MES), manufacturing operations management (MOM), asset performance management, supply chain management, ERP and analytics applications running on premise or in the cloud.

Fog computing may also play a role at the edge. “Fogging” is a version of cloud computing that places cloud-based computing resources closer to the edge. This enables higher-level analytics close to the edge, where low latency can allow real-time response. It also provides orchestration of distributed edge systems to enable a variety of sophisticated, coordinated interactions. Realistically, however, fog computing will lend itself most readily to new applications designed specifically for next-generation edge computing activities.

How will the edge take shape?

Wholesale replacement of existing applications is just not realistic from a cost or risk perspective. Instead, there will be an incremental transition with edge devices rolling out in a gradual way, leveraging the applications companies already have in place.

For many, the first step will be virtualizing their existing applications and building out a high-availability operational technology (OT) environment that is ready to support new smart connections and IIoT applications. This will provide a solid foundation for the next step—looking for opportunities to deploy new edge applications where data collection and analysis can add the greatest value.

While gradually building out this edge infrastructure, it is critical to focus on a few key priorities. The edge must be flexible to adapt to changing and expanding requirements. The edge must be continuously available because interruption in production is not an option. It must protect critical data, both for real-time functions and for longer-term planning and analysis. Because edge systems are located far from the data center and staff with IT skillsets, they must be easy to operate and maintain by operations staff, while conforming to IT security and management policies. And, they must be easily serviceable, including remotely.

Edge computing offers capabilities that are ideal for the refrigerated and frozen food industry and its far-flung supply chain. The ability to monitor and track a wide variety of data across the supply chain in real time can provide a significant competitive advantage, safely optimizing product quality while controlling costs.