On May 5, CBS News reported that nearly 145 field employees for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service were absent from work due to exposure to the COVID-19 virus. Despite the proliferation of digital technologies and instant communication, face-to-face meetings, inspections, and consultations were still a primary means of organizing food safety. However, as COVID-19 continues to impact public health and the economy for the near-term future, the food industry must engage novel digital technologies to innovate and enable “action at a distance” to keep food supply chains safe and efficient. One important offering is Mixed/Augmented Reality (abbreviated as M/AR for this article), a technology with potential to enhance food safety practices, compliance, and verification.
Mixed/Augmented Reality are essentially a collection of hardware and software tools based on digitizing a user’s field of view and bridging the manipulation of objects and surfaces between the physical and cyber spaces. For a clear demarcation of these definitions, look here.
Many early concepts focused on heads up displays or virtual whiteboards, but now that optical object recognition has improved so considerably, M/AR possibilities include the ability to assess and digitize objects, surfaces, and patterns in a user’s field of view. In fact, the tools which are needed for surface recognition and digitization are already built, mostly for usage in video games.
In food safety verification, inspectors and auditors are evaluating food production environments based on physical, chemical, and other processes to prevent, limit, and control the presence and growth of pathogens and other contaminants. In creating a food safety plans, a food safety team evaluates each point which a hazard may be present, and devise methods towards preventing how that hazard manifests.
While evaluating food production processes, there are many aspects that require expertise through a visual field. In the food industry, food safety specialists would visit many different facilities in regular processes of verification and documentation of these practices. In a post-Covid world, this is difficult and challenging to execute, but also practically, it is expensive and time-consuming to manage personnel across multiple sites. Digitizing fields of view and making the objects within them digitally representative would enhance food safety verification practices, elevating verification from checklists and pictures.
Just imagine a scenario where a food safety specialist may remotely work with an employee, sharing the same field of view to note areas of needed improvement or additional investigation. Digital streams of data could also accompany these digital touch points, such as temperature or humidity readings. Ultimately, the goal is to have a digital representation of product flow and virtual constructs which do not need the in-person evaluation of yesteryear.
In a field heavily based on visual inspection, AR systems may eventually be part of a food facility’s toolbox for collaboration and digital recordkeeping of physical processes. The food industry knows its needs for improving food safety verification practices. By understanding use cases for technologies, such as A/MR, food companies should collaborate with tech companies to co-develop solutions and subsequently increase food safety.
We are still in the early days of Mixed/Augmented Reality, but some real-world applications are coming on the scene. Emerson Automation Solutions recently updated their Plantweb Optics asset performance platform to include M/AR capabilities, enabling contemporaneous collaboration and assistance with experts in production environments. But until per-unit prices of headsets go down, the food industry will likely see niche applications of M/AR in the next year or two.
Update: A previous version contained a typo in describing the Plantweb Optics platform; corrected from “Planetweb”.