What if sensors in food storage areas could tell a restaurant chain exactly when it was running low on a key ingredient—rather than relying on employees to check it regularly—or alert supermarket staff to rising temperatures in a cold storage area?
Whether it’s waste of inventory or waste of employee time, a major cost in the food business is waste. Relying on internet of things technology to deploy a solution, digital products developer Mission Data has come up with OpSense, a sensor software platform to monitor such factors as temperature and humidity, improving accuracy and freeing up employees for other tasks.
The platform, which launched in September, was developed in partnership with Kroger, and currently has four users in various stages of adoption, according to Mission Data CEO Stuart Gavurin. The company has offices in Washington, D.C., and Louisville, Kentucky.
“We’re focused on food safety and the operations of the food services business,” said Gavurin, who estimates OpSense will deliver a 5:1 return on investment in terms of man-hours, energy savings and equipment maintenance.
Temperature control is a major concern for the food industry because of the risk of food-borne illnesses like salmonella, E.coli, listeria and campylobacteriosis, which sicken an estimated 48 million people annually, and result in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So a system that can monitor such things as temperature and other conditions would go a long way toward reducing those numbers, not to mention saving the expense and bad publicity associated with recalls.
The OpSense platform uses texts, emails or phone calls to alert employees in real time to temperature-related problems or other issues that require action to prevent spoilage. It also manages regulatory requirements, maintaining historical data and information needed for compliance with government and industry regulations, and reducing labor costs with automated logging, which eliminates error-prone manual observation.
“A lot of the value [of OpSense] is food safety, reducing inventory worries,” Gavurin said. “If a store is hit by an electrical outage, it can find the data later.”
OpSense grew out of Kroger’s proprietary system for monitoring its cold storage areas, which was developed in partnership with Mission Data, among other companies.
Kroger spokeswoman Kristal Howard said traditional methods of logging temperature were labor-intensive and inefficient and the grocery chain recognized early on that technology could revolutionize the process.
In 2014, the grocery store chain’s research and development department worked with several technology partners, including Mission Data, to create a wireless sensor network to monitor operational data, such as temperature fluctuations in cold and frozen food cases, Howard said.
“The use of IoT sensors to leverage real-time data was still innovative among retailers at the time, and there was no precedent for a deployment of temperature monitoring at the scale Kroger was discussing — more than 220 sensors per store,” she said “Today, Kroger has rolled out its automatic temperature monitoring program in all of its 2,800 stores.”
The sensors send alerts to store management and facilities engineers whenever there’s an anomaly, allowing them to react faster to temperature trends that could become a problem.
Howard said the benefits of the system are tremendous.
“The labor savings justified the solution, but the food safety and quality benefits became Kroger’s biggest driver for rolling it out across the company,” she said.
Kroger has more than 1.3 million connected devices already deployed in the system, Howard said, and is working to add more sensors for such data as motion, humidity and door status.
Mission Data tailored the system so that it could be adapted to quick-serve restaurants and other businesses where food safety is a concern. OpSense is designed to collect a lot of data reliably all the time, showing patterns that will allow stores to better predict needed stock and staffing levels, as well as equipment maintenance schedules to cut down on the need for replacement.
Mission Data doesn’t manufacture its own sensors but does work with vendors in Asia, mostly China. OpSense also can be set up using a company’s own sensors.
The system also can work with electronic labeling in retail stores, measuring weight on shelves and traffic flow, for example. Aligned with a smart cart or phone app, it can provide individualized discounts to shoppers or make suggestions. Gavurin said he expects the personalized shopping experience to take off more quickly in Asia than in the United States because of fewer concerns in Asia regarding privacy.
“The system also is very easy to expand to in-store operations,” Gavurin said. “In the store, probably the next big thing will be HVAC [heating and cooling]. It’s a huge energy consumer.”
After that, the sensors can be placed to monitor motion.
“The idea is to determine certain areas of the store that are gathering a lot of people,” he said. “There’s a lot of waiting in certain areas and sensors can help there. Is more help needed in certain places? You’re trying to move people through the store as quickly as possible. They need to find what they want and get out.”