How the Food Industry Improves Quality Control with a Smart Cold Chain
The Internet of Things (IoT) excels at monitoring everything, not only assets and people but also highly dynamic environmental conditions. While this used to be cost-prohibitive, reduced sensor costs and the emerging Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) now enable us to collect ambient data with unprecedented granularity. In the food industry, IoT-enabled environmental monitoring is now giving rise to the smart cold chain.
Witte Spezialitäten, a baked goods manufacturer based in Nuremberg, Germany, is an excellent example of how a traditional, family-owned business is turning to IoT and the smart cold chain to improve its business and create more value for its customers.
Founded in 1935, Witte Spezialitäten has been a renowned manufacturer of Nuremberg traditional gingerbread (“Lebkuchen”) and German bakery specialties for generations. Standing for handmade delicacies and fine craftsmanship, the company has strived to deliver products with the most pristine quality. Increasing competition and challenges of the seasonal business are now putting a strain on the family-run company.
Every year around the Christmas time, hundred-thousands of domestic and foreign tourists flock to Nuremberg for the famous “Christkindlesmarkt”. Among other regional specialties, Nuremberg Lebkuchen is a winter must-try for both tourists and local residents. With Lebkuchen being its pivotal product line, the majority of Witte Spezialitäten’s revenue is generated in only three months around Christmas.
Timely product delivery without compromising quality is a central mission of the company. Like other perishable products, the quality and durability of Lebkuchen are greatly influenced by ambient conditions during storage and distribution. A high atmospheric temperature can melt down its chocolate cover, while an unfavorably cold environment can harden its texture and spoil the taste. Similarly, excessive moisture levels spur mold and bacteria growth, while an overly arid atmosphere threaten to dry out the product.
To avoid stockouts during the holiday season, effective environmental monitoring, especially at storage and sales facilities is critical. Witte Spezialitäten has an HVAC system in place, but this is not always reliable. What if the HVAC equipment malfunctions or simply fails to maintain the optimal temperature or humidity? What if a door or window is unintentionally left open? What if there are hidden factors that impact environmental conditions? The company can’t risk selling mediocre goods that ruin the customer experience or impair its brand image.
Bringing Cold Chain Monitoring to the Next Level
Instead of reactively depending on the HVAC system, Witte Spezialitäten decided to improve its cold chain through digital transformation. Finding a versatile IoT solution that can be implemented on a budget is the very first step. After evaluating several options, the company’s technology partner, PixelMechanics suggested MYTHINGS by BehrTech for a pilot installation.
What was needed was an “out-of-the-box” connectivity solution that is reliable in indoor environments, cost-effective, and easy to install and manage. Given the small size of temperature and humidity data, Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs) are a viable option, and MYTHINGS, in particularly, was considered as a dependable LPWAN solution.
In January 2019, a MYTHINGS Starter Kit was implemented at each of the three Witte Spezialitäten sales facilities. The installation was successfully finished within one day. Immediately after the system is up, multifunctional sensors capture temperature and humidity data at both storage and shop rooms. Data is then communicated over MYTHINGS to the base station every 75 seconds.
A User-Friendly and Easy-to-Maintain System
At the base station, incoming data is relayed to the PixelMechanics Platform where it is visualized on a user-friendly dashboard. The dashboard design is tailored to the specific needs of Witte Spezialitäten’s management and accessible round-the-clock using any Internet-connected device. Once temperature and humidity values exceed predefined thresholds, an alert is instantly triggered for proactive responses.
In addition to environmental data, the sensors also regularly update their battery status. As such, the technical team can watch out for low battery levels without having to perform any manual checks. On top of that, the ultra-low power consumption of the sensor connectivity eliminates the hassle of frequent battery replacement.
Actionable Insights for Product Quality Assurance
With the MYTHINGS network and PixelMechanics IoT Platform in place, Witte Spezilitäten now has real-time visibility into environmental conditions at their facilities. Management can timely root cause and act on any abnormal temperature and humidity changes.
For example, failure of HVAC equipment or an unintentionally open door/window that disrupts ambient conditions can be identified early. Likewise, unusual temperature patterns that continue over time despite proper HVAC functioning, suggest hidden causes like degraded insulation. With enough historical data, other influential factors like shopping traffic can also be pinpointed for further data-driven decision-making.
All of these insights are valuable to help Witte Spezialitäten stay on top of cold chain management. Maintaining ideal temperature and humidity throughout storage and distribution is expected to minimize the number of wasted goods while optimizing product quality and shelf life. This translates into cost savings, on-time delivery and high customer satisfaction, especially during high seasons.
Going Beyond the Smart Cold Chain
A smart cold chain is not the only compelling application that IoT connectivity and analytics can offer to Witte Spezialitäten. Following the success of this pilot, MYTHINGS has also been implemented in the company’s manufacturing line to gather vibration and temperature data of equipment. Leveraging PixelMechanics’s analytics capability, this data can be turned into useful insights for remote monitoring and predictive maintenance of critical production assets. Having a complete IoT solution with proven technical viability, Witte Spezialitäten can now move forward on its digital transformation path.
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