Surveys are always a great way to get a snapshot of industry trends. There really is no better way to learn about what the majority of people are dealing with on a daily basis than to ask those on the ground floor and compare it with others’ experiences.
For yet another year, the Food Engineering Annual State of Food Manufacturing Survey has found that automation is number one on the top 10 industry trends list. To stay competitive, more processors are focusing on and increasing automation in their plants. Moreover, the growth in the capabilities of connecting equipment and allowing machines to, essentially, talk to each other is just another indication that automation’s role in food processing will become ever more ubiquitous.
There are many changes happening with consumers’ preferences and tastes. Among these is the desire for food products to be more natural and come from authentic companies. Of course, authenticity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The consumer’s perception of what a food company stands for, whether it’s true or not, can influence a purchase decision.
A small food startup that utilizes a handmade production approach might be more tactilely connected to the production, but it doesn’t necessarily have more dedication to maintaining product quality and consistency, nor does it necessarily expend more resources to ensure impeccable food safety standards. Also, if demand for the product ramps up, then the manual processes involved have a greater chance of causing shortages and/or quality issues. Almost all remedies to this, even at this small-scale example, will involve increasing the level of automation in some way.
One growing food product segment is the meal kit. In response to more consumers demanding fresher foods, many entrepreneurs are trying to crack the nut of home cooking. The problem is people don’t have the time, or sometimes the interest, to find recipes, shop for ingredients and put it all together to produce a home-cooked meal, just like Mom, or maybe Grandma, used to make. Startups have increasingly been popping up to deliver meals in a box right to the consumer’s door.
However, it seems like none of the current available options have quite hit the concept out of the park. I’ve heard complaints from customers of one or more of these companies that the recipes are too involved, and sometimes the dishes are too exotic or just plain weird. And then there’s maybe the most obvious barrier: These meal kits can be very pricey.
To succeed, many of the companies competing in this category are trying to reduce costs. A recent article from The Wall Street Journal entitled “Meal-Delivery Company Sprig Goes Lean” shows how one startup reduced its cost by employing assembly line principles. Doing this helped lower the cost of preparing a box of food by 22 percent. Soon, a whole new crop of companies in this segment also might be “reinventing the wheel.”