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Smart factories: The power of AI in personalising and expediting food production

Article-Smart factories: The power of AI in personalising and expediting food production

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Foodtech startup BCD iLabs is tapping into the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to make formulating and processing food and drinks more efficient, cost-friendly, and personalised.

Rapid advancements in technologies such as AI, machine learning (ML), and datafication have the potential to unlock efficiency, optimise productivity, and increase accessibility in the global food system.

From boosting traceability through blockchain technology, to optimising crop management, to delivering personalised nutrition recommendations, a suite of new AI-driven innovations is revolutionising how food is produced, distributed, and consumed.

Applying AI across the food value chain

Indian foodtech startup BCD iLabs is harnessing the power of AI and data to improve the efficiency, safety, and sustainability of food production and distribution processes. The company offers a range of AI solutions across the food value chain, focussing primarily on AI-driven food formulation, sustainable food production, and smart factories.

Targeting multiple stakeholders across the food system, the startup’s services range from the autonomous management of food production assets, to informing new product development, to supporting farmers in crop management and optimising agricultural yields.

“The biggest challenge that we see is that consumer-driven choices are driving us towards the hyper personalisation of packaged food. The challenge is that we often cannot produce [personalised] food, or different products on the same production line,” said Vinay Indraganti, BCD iLabs founder.

Speeding up food formulation to increase time-to-market

Aiming to increase access to sustainably produced, healthy, and affordable food globally, BCD iLabs have developed various AI-enabled solutions to allow for the personalisation of food production processes. By creating smart factories where multiple iterations of products can be produced at once, the startup helps manufacturers to better address consumer demand, without the need for additional, costly resources.

The startup’s tools can assist in optimising the R&D workflow of food production facilities to produce formulations according to a set of highly specific characteristics, while also delivering improved taste, texture, and shelf life.

“If you want a particular product one way and 10,000 other people want it a different way, those cannot all be produced on the same production line. We’re trying to solve that problem by asking: how can we make the factory smart so that everything can be produced on one production line, without increasing the production cost?” Indraganti said.

Using their AI-based formulation approach to reformulate high protein vegetarian bars, the startup was recently able to rapidly prototype with over 250 ingredients, reducing the manual experiment count by 60% and time to market by 40%.

“The more you work on a specific category or subcategory, the less physical experiments food scientists must deal with, and that’s how we help,” Ingraganti said.

“We drastically reduce the time it takes to formulate new products and reformulate [existing] ones.”

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Rather than collecting and storing customer data, BCD iLabs differentiates itself from its competitors by incorporating AI models into the consumer landscape and working directly with clients to craft custom solutions to food processing challenges.

Only a small number of datasets - around 10 to 20 - are required to inform the models. This is significantly less than other foodtech companies using AI for reformulation and processing optimisation, Indraganti said.

“We can help take R&D formulation and scale it up from R&D scale to pilot scale to production scale very rapidly,” he said.

The startup sees its unique value in its ability to offer solutions across the value chain, rather than focussing solely on formulation or production.

“On the R&D end and the operational end, we see tremendous value by bringing both of them together in one 360 [solution],” Ingraganti said.

The company is currently on the lookout for partners and investors with whom it is strategically aligned to continue developing its software and solving food processing problems.

“An investor who's already invested in food companies that have problems that need to be solved would be a great partner for us,” Indraganti said.

AI enters the mainstream

Feeding the world in 2050 is a daunting task. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the demand for agricultural products is becoming greater and by 2050, food production will need to increase by 60% to feed a world population of 9.3 billion. AI is one promising technology that offers a solution to this challenge.

Despite existing for decades, AI has recently hit the headlines and expanded into public consciousness via the popularity of tools such as Chat GPT and Amazon Alexa. Similarly in the food industry, AI technologies are becoming increasingly popular as investment into the sector grows.

In June this year, the European Commission (EC) along with its member states and over 120 research, industry, and NGO partners announced €220 million worth of investment in various Testing and Experimentation Facilities (TEFs) for AI across the agrifood, health, and manufacturing sectors. And globally in 2022, 12 new foodtech startups became unicorns, holding a value of over one billion dollars.