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The Year Ahead: Top technologies to watch

Labor shortages, food delivery and click-and-collect, and other trends are accelerating the need for technology.

Here are some areas expected to advance in 2022:

Retailers including Hy-Vee, Save Mart, and Schnucks are testing or rolling out robots for tasks such as inventory tracking, order picking, and delivery. Simbe, with its Tally robot, and Bell and Howell, with its BH QuickCollect GO! POD, are among the vendors helping meet these needs. Brian Numainville, principal at The Feedback Group in Bentonville, AR, believes automation and robots in retail stores will continue to accelerate as more solutions are tested and vetted.

Artificial Intelligence
“Artificial intelligence (AI) is used quite a bit in grocery in everything from customer care to fraud protection to price control. It’s being used to personalize promotions to individual buyers based on their preferences and past behaviors. And, smart shopping carts are already improving the checkout experience via AI,” says Matt Schwartz, CEO and co-founder of Afresh Technologies. He says AI is underutilized is in inventory, merchandising, and store operations for fresh food. “There’s a lot of opportunity to utilize AI in grocery, and I think we’ll only see more and more applications in 2022.”

Mobile Solutions
Procurant is a new company that provides a mobile supply chain management tool embedded with traceability, quality control, logistics, and food safety. It serves large retailers including Albertsons, Winco, foodservice companies, and their trade partners. “Kids from the next generation coming into the industry are all mobile,” says Ray Connelly, vice president of supplier strategy for Procurant. “Mobile will be the biggest facilitator from a technology point of view.”

Autonomous Vehicles
Giumarra Companies partnered with TuSimple Holdings and Associated Wholesale Grocers in May 2021 to test delivery of a load of watermelon, completing the first and last miles manually and the middle 900 miles autonomously. Companies like Amazon and FedEx are also piloting self-driving vehicles for long-haul trucking. “I’m not convinced society is quite ready to accept 80,000-pound driverless vehicles on the roads yet,” comments Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain and sustainability for the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA).

He foresees more pilots in 2022. “The expectation seems to be that autonomous vehicles have to perform to a standard that’s far higher than human-operated vehicles.” That said, some believe labor shortages may drive adoption faster than expected—a case in point is Walmart’s partnership with Gatik for daily driverless deliveries within its hometown of Bentonville, AR.

Electric Vehicles
“Many fleets are ordering some electric trucks and refrigerated trailers as they replace diesel equipment,” Treacy says, noting the California Air Resources Board’s new requirements for manufacturers to build more electric trucks for use on California roads, with a goal of 100,000 electric trucks by 2030 and the entire fleet electric by 2045.

Connelly says the fresh produce industry has historically been behind in technology compared to other industries, but the move to online purchasing, delivery, and pickup during the pandemic has been among the trends altering the landscape. “It’s changed the dynamic of how fresh food is distributed and created a need for technology in the supply chain.” The accelerating demand for traceability is also driving this evolution. “The old technology platforms can’t do it,” he says. “We’ve gotten much smarter about how to implement traceability, and the cost has come down.”

“We must drive increased efficiency throughout the supply chain to deal with labor shortages, but also to offset rising costs,” concludes Tom Stenzel, co-CEO of the IFPA. “Adopting new technology and automation will be an important part of the long-term solution.”

This is an excerpt from the cover story of the January/February 2022 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue.