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  • Hugo Walker

Augmented reality in the F&B industry: revolutionary or far-fetched?

Against the backdrop of the Industry 4.0 conversation, augmented reality (AR) and its potential industrial applications have become a hot topic.

What is AR used for?

AR is an interactive technology which imposes computer-generated images and information over the real world. In industrial settings, AR can be used to relay information, such as statistics and calculations, about machinery and complex procedures. AR has been hailed as a revolutionary way to assist complicated procedures - from overlaying patient CT scans during surgery to assembling and operating heavy machinery in engineering plants. But is there space for AR in the food and beverage industry?

AR in the food industry

NSF International, an AR developer, has created a product named EyeSucceed - interactive, hands-free goggles which help with training workers and optimising back-of-house operations. According to John Rowley, senior vice president of global food and ISR at NSF, a leading quick-service restaurant client saw that using EyeSucceed contributed to avoiding lost revenue due to equipment downtime and reducing maintenance costs by up to 75%.

"The use of voice- and eye-controlled AR applications giving step-by-step instructions to workers on smart glasses, such as EyeSucceed, can support training employees at their workstations, streamlining the onboarding process and reducing the pressure and costs of peer-to-peer training. The inbuilt corrective intelligence detects employee errors and equipment deviations in real-time. The result is a properly trained employee, reducing food safety and employee safety risks."

Challenges and doubts

While EyeSucceed is a great case study, there are many barriers which have led to AR’s slow adoption in the food and beverage industry relative to other industries. Mr Rowley continues: "Following the pandemic, we have seen that the food industry is looking for even more ways to leverage new technologies to improve training and efficiency while maintaining quality and consistency. However, as with the adoption of any new technology, there is a learning and adoption curve.

To use the devices to their full potential, including live streaming functionalities, you need a reliable, strong Wi-Fi connection throughout a facility, which has been a challenge some of our clients had to overcome.

The success of any disruptive technology depends on its ability to deliver demonstrated use cases in saving money or solving problems, along with a proven return on the financial investment needed. When tools such as smart glasses were first introduced more than a decade ago, they were launched without having effective use-case solutions.”

Professor Bob Stone, Emeritus Professor specialising in Extended Reality (XR), has further doubts about the practical application of AR on the factory floor: "Can we say with confidence that AR is a real ‘game changer’ and is, now, delivering convincing results and ROIs in the F&B sector today? I would have to say no.

Many of the articles one reads online — and this does not just apply to food and drink — are nothing more than collections of marketing soundbites, with lots from senior employees making bold and fantastical statements about the exploitations of AR. For example, one company claims: ‘With a vast number of companies in the food industry adopting AR for its operations … There is no doubt augmented reality will be used in the food industry in full-fledge soon.’ Vast? No doubt? Full-fledged? Plenty of conjecture, but time and time again, no case studies, no evidence.”

One paper presented at the 54th CIRP Conference on Manufacturing Systems in 2021 concluded that ‘Although the food industry has seen a rise in the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies, the implementation of AR remains significantly low … Apart from the gaming industry, no other industry has figured out the AR-based business model that will last for significant years."

If there is one lesson to be learnt from technological developments in the modern era, it is to expect the unexpected. While AR may not have found a widespread application on the factory floor in the F&B industry so far, only time will tell if its appeal — rooted in the entertainment industry — will find practical use.

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