Can smart technology combat the food crisis?
Smart tech is changing product management from farm to fork
British scholar Thomas Robert Malthus once famously predicted that the world’s population would outgrow the rate of food production. While things have changed in the two centuries since, population increased projections indicate that we remain set for a global food crisis. Here, Robert Glass, Global Communications Manager of ABB’s food and beverage program, looks at how technology could offset the crisis.
Thomas Malthus’ theory, which has since come to be known as the Malthusian trap, predicted that human nature meant any abundance in food production would result in higher populations rather than better living conditions. Malthus foresaw that, ultimately, this unsustainable approach to population growth would lead to widespread famine and poverty.
According to US Census Bureau historical population data, the worldwide population was estimated to be between 813 million and 1.1 billion when this theory was conceived in the late eighteenth century. At the upper end, this makes the global population at the time of Malthus’ prediction a mere 15 per cent of the 7.5 billion people inhabiting the Earth as of April 2017.
While some take such a substantial growth in population as proof that Malthus’ proposed pattern of human behavior was correct, others argue that the Malthusian trap cannot be true as we have seen improvements in living conditions and general quality of life. This is reflected in longer life spans across the globe, with countries such as France seeing the average life doubling between 1800 and today.
- RELATED STORIES:
- Read the latest issue of Business Review Europe
- The science of good food, it’s all about the sauce
- Danya Foods driving growth through supply chain professionalisation
However, these developments were only achievable due to the green revolution that introduced new agricultural techniques and food production technologies between 1930 and the 1960s. With the global population set to be between eight and ten billion by 2050 and the UN stating food production must double in line with this, another widespread uptake of advanced technology is necessary to facilitate this growth.
Fortunately, developments in technology used at each stage of the food supply chain show how this can be realistically achieved. Farmers at the beginning of the chain, for example, can now use more advanced automation systems to manage the climate conditions and feed of livestock more efficiently from a central location.
Using systems, such as ABB’s AC500 series of PLCs, to control inputs such as ventilation flaps and feeding dispenser motors, farmers can maximize productivity and produce higher yields. Farmers simply use an operator panel to schedule feeding times or set input parameters and the system does the rest.
Another technological revolution, however may not be effective unless it addresses the issues of the previous one, particularly the energy costs for farms in developing countries. As several of these countries, such as South Africa are powered by coal-fueled power plants, the cost of providing electricity to farm irrigation systems is constantly increasing due to the scarcity of the fuel.
ABB recently worked with a farm in South Africa to tackle this exact issue. In this instance, engineers replaced the manual valve-based control systems on the farm’s water pumps with new variable speed drive (VSD) technology.
This switch simplified the operation of the irrigation system by reducing the need for manual labor and made the overall system more energy efficient, which reduced energy usage by 40 per cent.
This reduction in usage, in addition to the saved man hours, significantly decreased the farm’s operational costs and streamlined the food production process — while simultaneously reducing the farm’s CO2 footprint.
Technology such as this shows promise for a sustainable agricultural revolution that could offset the Malthusian trap for good. With much of this technology already available for businesses to use, it is possible that we could witness the first steps towards tackling food poverty through food manufacturing being taken in our lifetimes.
Automation of repetitive tasks leads to higher value work
Two-thirds of global office workers feel they are constantly doing the same tasks over and over again. That’s according to a new study (2021 Office Worker Survey) from automation software company UiPath.
Whether emailing, inputting data, or scheduling calls and meetings, the majority of those surveyed said they waste on average four and a half hours a week on time-consuming tasks that they think could be automated.
Not only is the undertaking of such repetitious and mundane tasks a waste of time for employees, and therefore for businesses, but it can also have a negative impact on employees’ motivation and productivity. And the research backs this up with more than half (58%) of those surveyed saying that undertaking such repetitive tasks doesn’t allow them to be as creative as they’d like to be.
“When repetitive, unrewarding tasks are handled by people, it takes time and this can cause delays and reduce both employee and customer satisfaction,” Gavin Mee, Managing Director of UiPath Northern Europe tells Business Chief. “Repetitive tasks can also be tedious, which often leads to stress and an increased likelihood to leave a job.”
And these tasks exist at all levels within an organisation, right up to executive level, where there are “small daily tasks that can be automated, such as scheduling, logging onto systems and creating reports”, adds Mee.
Automation can free employees to focus on higher value work
By automating some or all of these repetitive tasks, employees at whatever level of the organisation are freed up to focus on meaningful work that is creative, collaborative and strategic, something that will not only help them feel more engaged, but also benefit the organisation.
“Automation can free people to do more engaging, rewarding and higher value work,” says Mee, highlighting that 68% of global workers believe automation will make them more productive and 60% of executives agree that automation will enable people to focus on more strategic work. “Importantly, 57% of executives also say that automation increases employee engagement, all important factors to achieving business objectives.”
These aren’t the only benefits, however. One of the problems with employees doing some of these repetitive tasks manually is that “people are fallible and make mistakes”, says Mee, whereas automation boosts accuracy and reduces manual errors by 57%, according to Forrester Research. Compliance is also improved, according to 92% of global organisations.
Repetitive tasks that can be automated
Any repetitive process can be automated, Mee explains, from paying invoices to dealing with enquiries, or authorising documents and managing insurance claims. “The process will vary from business to business, but office workers have identified and created software robots to assist with thousands of common tasks they want automated.”
These include inputting data or creating data sets, a time-consuming task that 59% of those surveyed globally said was the task they would most like to automate, with scheduling of calls and meetings (57%) and sending template or reminder emails (60%) also top of the automation list. Far fewer believed, however, that tasks such as liaising with their team or customers could be automated, illustrating the higher value of such tasks.
“By employing software robots to undertake such tasks, they can be handled much more quickly,” adds Mee pointing to OTP Bank Romania, which during the pandemic used an automation to process requests to postpone bank loan instalments. “This reduced the processing time of a single request from 10 minutes to 20 seconds, allowing the bank to cope with a 125% increase in the number of calls received by call centre agents.”
Mee says: “Automation accelerates digital transformation, according to 63% of global executives. It also drives major cost savings and improves business metrics, and because software robots can ramp-up quickly to meet spikes in demand, it improves resilience.
Five business areas that can be automated
Mee outlines five business areas where automation can really make a difference.
- Contact centres Whether a customer seeks help online, in-store or with an agent, the entire customer service journey can be automated – from initial interaction to reaching a satisfying outcome
- Finance and accounting Automation enables firms to manage tasks such as invoice processing, ensuring accuracy and preventing mistakes
- Human resources Automations can be used across the HR team to manage things like payroll, assessing job candidates, and on-boarding
- IT IT teams are often swamped in daily activity like on-boarding or off-boarding employees. Deploying virtual machines, provisioning, configuring, and maintaining infrastructure. These tasks are ideal for automation
- Legal There are many important administrative tasks undertaken by legal teams that can be automated. Often, legal professionals are creating their own robots to help them manage this work. In legal and compliance processes, that means attorneys and paralegals can respond more quickly to increasing demands from clients and internal stakeholders. Robots don’t store data, and the data they use is encrypted in transit and at rest, which improves risk profiling and compliance.
“To embark on an automation journey, organisations need to create a Centre of Excellence in which technical expertise is fostered,” explains Mee. “This group of experts can begin automating processes quickly to show return on investment and gain buy-in. This effort leads to greater interest from within the organisation, which often kick-starts a strategic focus on embedding automation.”