With drinks companies set to face increasing pressure in the future, smart technologies will become more important for driving efficiency in drinks manufacturing, tracing products at every aspect of the supply chain, and marketing products for an increasingly tech-savvy consumer base.

From smart factories to robots driven by artificial intelligence, smart technologies are pushing drinks into a new digital era. However, the speed at which such technologies are proving transformative can make them difficult to track. We explore the state of some of the more prominent of these technologies and how they are changing the industry.

Smart manufacturing: reducing costs through IOT-enabled solutions

Automation and internet of things technologies are helping food and drinks manufacturers attain the benefits of the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’. These include greater efficiency, reduced production costs, and enhanced safety to staff due to increasing automation through robotics and smart technologies.

Smart sensors introduced on packaging lines can make it easier to fill beverage packs in a range of sizes and switch formats on the fly. They also collect data that enables beverage producers to monitor their supplies, as well as track the condition of filling equipment to facilitate predictive maintenance.

IOT-enabled solutions can also monitor transportation conditions for drinks in transit and provide more accurate and detailed record-keeping, ensuring products remain in compliance with safety regulations.

Big data: ensuring consistency across products

Big data can be a major driver for the beverage industry when it comes to improving insights across the supply chain. The development of enterprise resource planning software, such as retail specialist Sanderson’s UnityF8 system, provides companies with an online platform that compiles real-time information and helps them identify the best ways to optimise production of soft drinks, smoothies, alcohol and other beverages.

Encompassing more than 500 brands and over 700,000 employees worldwide, Coca-Cola is unsurprisingly no stranger to data analytics. The company leverages an algorithm known as the Black Book model to ensure its orange juice has the same taste and quality the entire year round, even outside orange growing seasons. It does this by combining weather data, crop yields, acidity and sweetness ratings, and satellite images, before identifying the best combination of factors to optimise juice production for consumers worldwide.

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Experimenting with AI and robotic bartenders

AI allows computers to receive data and make actionable decisions, creating a major boon for the drinks industry supply chain. However, AI-powered technology is also being explored in a number of ‘out there’ ways.

In 2017, IBM and Cornell University teamed up to explore whether it was possible to create new AI models that could help identify food hazards in dairy products – specifically milk – before they can cause an outbreak. This involved sequencing and analysing the DNA of microbes in milk to create new AI-driven tools that could detect hazardous anomalies.

However, AI can also give drinks a new lease of life from a consumer and hospitality perspective. Launched last year, Robolab’s Yanu is said to be the first portable, fully autonomous bartending unit, using technology to take orders and payment, as well as mix and serve cocktails.

Smart packaging: traceability and marketing

Cases where products are deliberately mislabelled, diluted or tampered with before they reach consumers cost the food and beverage industries billions every year. Smart packaging solutions are being increasingly introduced in a bid to help companies track their products’ validity along the supply chain.

UK-based Everledger and adhesive specialist Avery Dennison are using blockchain technology to create traceable wine labels. Each tamper-resistant Janela label has a unique serialised online identity paired with near field communication technology. Retailers and customers are able to scan wine bottles with the label using an NFC-enabled device (such as a smartphone) to track the product’s journey.

Drinks brands are also tapping into smart technologies for marketing their wares. Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned Devils Backbone is experimenting with the use of augmented reality on packaging for three of its beer brands. Using a new app, consumers are able to watch a 3D visualisation of packaging features through their smartphone camera.

Smart packaging can also be the foundation on which new innovations emerge. In 2017, Smart Cups launched a new line of energy drinks packaged in cups with 3D polycapsules technology printed on the side. When water is added to the cup, the capsules activate and unleash an energy drink flavouring.

Sugar reduction technologies

Growing concerns about the negative impact of sugar consumption have led to new taxes being introduced in countries such as the UK, with soft drinks and sugar-laden drinks have been cited as a particular vehicle for bad consumer habits. Drink companies have been attempting to create reduced or sugar-versions of drinks as the sweetener market proliferates – but could technology help?

Israeli start-up Better Juice has developed an innovative technology solution that reduces the amount of natural sugar in juice. Natural enzymatic activity in non-GMO micro-organisms is used by the tech to convert fructose, glucose and sucrose in fruit into fibres and non-digestible natural sugars. According to the company, trials with several beverage companies revealed that the tech successfully reduced sugars in orange juice in a range between 30% and 80%.

What does the future hold for drinks industry technology?

In the future, companies will continue to develop technologies in a bid to answer the main problems facing the drinks industry. In particular, sustainability could be a focus, as food and drinks companies come under increasing pressure to reduce their environmental impact.

This could see the production of more technologies that help the bid towards cutting our single-use plastic. Last year, US-based Clear Water Manufacturing introduced a machine designed to rapidly sanitise and refill recyclable bottles with water at retail and hospitality locations.

As blockchain, big data and AI technologies continue to improve, drinks companies will continue to find solutions to its largest problems while enhancing their market appeal to consumers.