In an era where technology relentlessly advances, the retail industry faces a transformative opportunity through Ambient IoT (Internet of Things). Steve Statler, Chief Marketing Officer at Wiliot shared what grocery retailers need to understand and embrace about this game changing technology. He started with a basic understanding, “it [Ambient IoT] enables a logical progression, just like the mainframe, desktop computer, and smartphone. We see this as the biggest disrupter since the smartphone.”
For grocery retailers who are tasked with ensuring food safety and compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Ambient IoT presents an innovative solution that is both cost-effective and powerful”. FSMA is the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws since 1938 and will go into effect January 2023 and gives companies a period of three years to comply.
Frank Yiannas, former Food & Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy, and Response was the key architect of FSMA while servicing at FDA and is now a Strategic Advisor to Wiliot. He says that “We talk about pallet level traceability and case level traceability. Case level traceability to store is a game changer for retailers. However, retailers don’t do that today; traceability stops at the distribution center. But that’s not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is item level traceability. We could, in the future, capture information about nutritional content, allergens as a label declaration, carbon footprint of an item and so much more. This is a real game changer for tracking app data attributes in real time as they really exist.”
The challenges at FDA were tough but when Yiannas worked at FDA, he had some of the best food economists in the world working on FSMA and they had to publish the cost benefit analysis to get the rules finalized by OMB. And in it, he says, we show that just by tracking and tracing the types of foods that are going to require this additional recordkeeping, there’s a return on investment because you’re going to prevent illnesses.
To truly understand the potential of Ambient IoT, we need to recognize its essence: everything talks to everything. Unlike traditional technologies such as barcodes, QR codes, and even RFID, Ambient IoT operates on a radically different principle. The key is that it transcends mere data collection; it bridges the gap between the cloud’s computational power, generative AI, and the everyday objects that surround us. Imagine a world where food products, clothing, medicine, and more can seamlessly communicate with refrigerators, closets, medicine cabinets and smart speakers – this is the promise of Ambient IoT.
Yiannas as you would surmise, is an early adopter. He told me that he was “one of those crazy ones that invested in the Samsung hi-tech refrigerator. And every once in a while, I go to my refrigerator and my screen says, it’s time to order Greek yogurt. The way it does that, it has a camera inside the refrigerator. It’s not very precise. But it’s trying to predict what you need.” The key word according to Yiannis and Statler is “trying” – and Ambient IoT can change that by combining the intel from the smart devices in our homes that will bring us item level traceability in the palm of our hand.
So how does it work?
The technology at the heart of Ambient IoT is incredibly small yet mighty. Wiliot has developed tiny devices, known as “pixels,” that are designed to be cost-efficient, with a current price tag of less than $0.10 each, basically a computer device – a computer the size of a postage stamp and according to Statler, will have a continually decreasing cost. These pixels are battery free and communicate over Bluetooth. They get energy by harvesting the power from the radio waves that surround us. When a series of them is combined, he explained, these pixels create a high-definition and a real-time picture of the world around us, offering unprecedented opportunities for businesses, especially food retailers now responsible for food safety. Yiannas underscored the importance of food traceability and how it can benefit the food system by removing cost and preventing illnesses. He explained how the lack of transparency in the food system is a root issue for problems such as sustainability, food safety, and supply chain snarls – he also introduced a new paradigm – the no labor/low labor concept – where you don’t need people with expensive handled scanners walking around scanning. Statler adds you get much better compliance as handheld scanners can be great when used properly, but with FMSA looming we must understand the reality and connect with the real world of products, whether it’s a crate of strawberries or a vaccine vial. The objective is clear, reading all this data all the time without anyone having to do anything, real time visibility if you will.
Ambient IoT benefits grocery retailers and retail dietitians in six areas to help them meet the stringent requirements of the FSMA, which is Wiliot’s starting point.
1. Real-time Temperature Monitoring:
Maintaining the proper temperature of perishable goods is essential for food safety. Ambient IoT allows retailers to monitor temperatures in real-time, ensuring that food products are consistently stored at the required levels. Any deviations can trigger immediate alerts, enabling timely corrective action. Yiannas cited the example of mango slices that often go to waste due to improper cold chain management, and explained how real-time monitoring can increase trust in the system and reduce waste. Statler emphasized the importance of preemptive actions and waste reduction, and shared a project in Israel that demonstrated the benefits of real-time monitoring.
2. Inventory Management:
Ambient IoT can enhance inventory management by providing accurate, up-to-date data on product levels. Grocery retailers can easily track the shelf life of products, reducing food waste, and ensuring that expired items are removed from shelves promptly and allows retailers to properly rotate their stock, taking the ripest fruit for example from the back room and putting it on the shelf in the front of the store.
3. Supply Chain Transparency:
With Ambient IoT, retailers can establish end-to-end visibility into their supply chains. This transparency is invaluable for tracking the journey of food products, identifying potential contamination points, and swiftly addressing any issues to maintain food safety standards. Statler explains, “if I [i.e., the supermarket retailer] knows where everything is, I can actually have less slack in the supply chain. If you think about factories and manufacturing, they don’t know what’s going on downstream right now. They can. And so, this isn’t about incremental efficiencies in the supply chain. This is step change in improvement. And predicting deliveries of product based on exactly what’s out of stock and what’s in store.” And, he adds, if you have those demand signals ultimately even from a consumer’s pantry, then you can start to regulate production a lot more efficiently, have fresher food, less production.
4. Enhanced Traceability:
The FSMA places a significant emphasis on traceability, requiring retailers to swiftly trace the source of contaminated products. Ambient IoT’s ability to track product movements and conditions throughout the supply chain simplifies traceability efforts, helping everyone in the store to comply with FSMA regulations.
5. Data-Driven Insights:
Ambient IoT generates a wealth of data that can be harnessed by retail dietitians. Analyzing this data can provide valuable insights into consumer behavior, product demand, and potential safety risks, enabling informed decision-making and continuous improvement of food safety protocols.
6. Consumer Engagement:
Transparency in food safety practices can build trust with consumers. Retailers can use Ambient IoT to share real-time data with consumers, allowing them to make informed choices about the products they purchase and consume. These pixels will find the nutritional information, temperature information, allergens, carbon footprint, provenance, even point to the location of where the food is grown or manufactured and display it on a smartphone app for the consumer.
As we delve into this world of Ambient IoT, it’s clear that this technology is a game-changer for the broader retail industry. Its ability to provide real-time monitoring, enhance supply chain visibility, and deliver data-driven insights aligns perfectly with the objectives of today’s grocers.
Ambient IoT is more than just a technological innovation; it’s a transformative force that is reshaping the retail landscape. By adopting this technology, grocery retailers can not only meet the requirements of the FSMA but also enhance food safety practices, reduce operational costs, and improve the overall customer experience. As Statler aptly put it, Ambient IoT is “opening the portal between the power of the cloud, power of generative AI, and the ordinary things that surround us.” Yiannas previously led the RFID and Blockchain Initiatives at Walmart
It’s critical for grocery retailers to understand this new era of Ambient IoT which will start rolling out with FSMA’s food safety regulations and usher in a future where every pixel contributes to a smarter, safer, and more efficient food supply chain.