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Editor's Plate: Where Is the Future of Food?

Oct. 19, 2015
One guess is as good as another, but here are some mile markers.

Download the digital version of the October 2015 issue

A couple of things crossed my desk in the past month – not the least of which was this magazine’s cover – that made me think way out there about the future of food and beverage.

I recently got sucked into a casual debate about 3-D printing (additive manufacturing is a better term). I’ve seen the technology demonstrated a couple of times without being impressed. To me it looked like: Plug in some complicated software, come back in three hours and – voila! – you have a Hershey’s Kiss. Wow! How many Kisses do you think a Hershey factory turns out in three hours?

On the other hand, it always draws a crowd. Sometimes I feel like I’m missing something.

Then I saw an article on The Street, a financial news website, that said: “Unknown to most hungry snack food fans, food and beverage giant PepsiCo has been using 3-D printing to help produce Ruffles potato chips since 2011.” The technology “has created multiple benefits for the company when it comes to producing its Ruffles Deep Ridged potato chips.”

“In the past, to find this perfect potato chip design might have taken 12 to 18 months because we would go and make a hand slicer, create some chips, take it to consumers, and then get their feedback,” Richard Dunham, senior director of PepsiCo R&D, explained in an interview with The Street. “Now with 3-D printing, we have cut that down to three months.”

The process involves designing several prototype Ruffles chips etched from a 3-D printer, then testing the sizes with consumers to see what they preferred. PepsiCo then would create a chip slicer with the preferred design at its manufacturing plants.

I have a hard time believing it takes 12-18 months to come up with a few prototype potato chip thicknesses. Again, I may be missing something.

I remember a few years back, Pringles was printing different messages on its chips. That’s similar to this past summer’s Coca-Cola cans that had seemingly every name imaginable on them. Does anyone really need to see their name on their food?

There also was a news release this past month announcing a partnership between International Flavors & Fragrances and Vapor Communications, a technology startup, “to advance the future of digital scent.” Digital scent?

“Combining certain Vapor software and hardware scent platform with IFF scent technology and expertise, the collaboration is anticipated to bring mobile scent experiences to consumers. Powering Vapor Communications’ technology is oNotes, a software platform for scent communication that permits the easy integration of scent into electronics. The core of the hardware is in the oChip, a scent cartridge that embeds in electronic devices, clothing, furniture and other objects to deliver personal scent experiences much as an audio headset delivers sound.”

Scent communication? Admittedly, we have written a few times about the electronic nose. Still...

“We believe the future of scent is in the digital world,” said Nicolas Mirzayantz, IFF’s group president for fragrances.

While doable, all those examples are a bit out there. Where, really, will the future of food and beverage manufacturing be?

Our cover story, When it Comes to Plant Automation, Smart Machines Mean Smarter Production, only scratches the surface. The Industrial Internet of Things is certainly quite the catchprase right now. But if you take a closer look, it’s just a sexier way of saying instrumentation and control with lots of data gathering and connectivity. Throw in a smartphone and the word “cloud” and you’re there.

All this coming from a guy who once said, “All these fancy computers in the office really are making the job easier. But I don’t ever see someone needing one at home.”

Change is constant, and sometimes you don’t even feel it. Often, what you scoffed at a few years ago you can’t live without today. You just one day find yourself watching a baseball playoff game on a computer in an airplane or showing someone a new app on your smartphone.

Maybe we don’t need our names on our potato chips or even digital scent. But someone has to be out there pushing the envelope, even if the first iteration looks ridiculous. History is littered with ingenious but useless first drafts of things that didn’t make sense until a second visionary found a real application for them. I need to remind myself to remain skeptical but open to the marvel of change.

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