While eager to pitch in PowerPoint their IoT-related products, few tech companies are ready to dirty their hands applying IoT technologies to real-world problems.
« Previously: Blockchain, sensors pave road to Internet of Tomatoes
Analog Device’s strength lies in environmental sensors that measure air, temperature, humidity and light, and motion sensors. However, when an Israeli company called Consumer Physics came to ADI, the company realised that they could work together on a tool called SCiO to check tomato quality without squishing the tomatoes.
The technology underlying SCiO is Near-Infra-Red (NIR) spectroscopy. It provides material analysis based on the principle that each type of molecule vibrates in a unique way. The vibrations interact with light to create a unique optical signature. SCiO devices acquire the signature by using the optical sensor and signal conditioning electronics. This enables farmers to simply scan tomatoes without destroying them and collect data, sending it to an ADI gateway and upward to the cloud.
Figure 1: The scanned data has helped ADI build models to predict growth and harvest times while understanding the right level of water and humidity necessary to grow tomatoes. (Source: Consumer Physics)
More importantly, though, once all the stakeholders in the supply chain—ranging from farmers and packers to truckers, warehouse managers and retailers—agree to share a common platform using a common tool (i.e., SCiO device), results could get much more powerful, Olsen explained. Everyone would be measuring the health, maturity and taste of tomatoes for “common comparisons.” More data could be collected so that the whole supply chain understands the best storage conditions and duration for tomatoes—temperature, humidity, vibration—before they land in the salad at Sardi’s.
Platform battle brewing?
To keep everyone in the supply chain honest, you need a transparent distributed ledger system enabled by blockchain technology. That’s where ripe.io comes in.
It was Francis Gouillart, founder and president of the Experience Co-Creation Partnership, who connected the dots between ADI and blockchains. Guillart is Chief Food Officer at ripe.io.
Describing him as “a true entrepreneur,” Harris said that Guillart was the bridge who connected farmers, science, technology, blockchains and IoT.
Figure 2: Blockchains could change consumers' purchasing behaviours because they offer more information and make it transparent. (Source: ripe.io)
Many observers in the retail and technology sectors believe that once Amazon gets involved, things will move twice as fast in all the fields involved. As owner of Whole Foods, will Amazon start a platform war in the food business?
For example, ADI’s pioneering efforts to develop a common platform for tomatoes—in which farmers, distributors and consumers are currently united on a small scale—could be obliterated by a 600-pound gorilla like Amazon. ADI’s Olsen said that could happen. But he quickly added, “It all depends on what problems you’re trying to solve.” Olsen stressed that ADI’s focus is on helping small- to medium-sized farmers optimise produce for better quality (not necessarily volume). Such efforts become a very different play when compared to big corporations who produce big volume for large-scale retail chains.
But if ADI decides to play in the big-league food supply chain, what will the company have to do? Olsen said, “Ultimately, we need to compete on the quality of our sensors.”
The start-up, ripe.io, on the other hand, knows that it will inevitably compete with big data companies such as IBM. Consider Walmart’s partnership with IBM and Tsinghua University, announced last fall in Beijing, to digitally track the movement of pork in China on a blockchain.
Ramachandran explained that IBM uses a proprietary blockchain called Hyperledger. Stored in a private database developed by IBM, it is designed to provide the retailer with a way to indelibly record a list of transactions indicating how meat has flowed through a commercial network, from producers to processors to distributors to grocers and to consumers.
Ramachandran noted, “While the Walmart/IBM partnership is initially focused solely on traceability of meat or fish, our solution is a lot more than that.” Ripe.io’s offering is much more comprehensive, he claimed. It uses a blockchain to cover, track, monitor and determine food quality, optimal ripeness, taste parameters and other aspects related to the variety of food and products in the supply chain. “We’ve developed our products with the future in mind.”
Of course, there is a danger that the largest entities come in and dictate certain technologies for everyone in the supply chain. In this case, Walmart will use its own blockchain, Costco will have its own and Whole Foods may use something entirely different, greatly complicating the relationship among growers, producers, distributors and retailers.
Although Walmart might have been able to pick a single solution like RFID in the past, “You can’t really strangle the supply chain like that” by enforcing a single platform or a single blockchain, said Ramachandran. Supply-chain participants need flexibility, lots of choices and collaboration, he explained.
For that purpose, ripe.io said that it has developed a standard syntax to translate labels (the same produce may be labelled differently in different databases) used by retailers such as Costco, Walmart or Whole Foods, for example. That semantic layer “will normalise intelligence” embedded in different blockchains, making it easy to talk to each other, explained Ramachandran. Although ripe.io declined to detail the technology, the company believes that this could be its competitive advantage.
These days, there is no term more overused than “ecosystem,” especially in the technology and business worlds. But it is precisely the right term to apply to the industrial IoT segment. It is essential for everyone in the supply chain—from farmers to packers, distributors and retailers—to buy into such a system as a blockchain, in which participants share data, agree on what will be kept hidden from public view, develop protocols and collaborate.
“Blockchains hold promises,” said William T. Walker, author of “Supply Chain Construction” and adjunct professor of supply chain engineering at New York University. “But the problem is that not enough people know about it yet.”
Ramachandran said that the philosophy behind blockchain is “meant to be fairly simple.” It is to create independent trust of important facts, transactions and activity. Implementing it, however, is challenging because it takes multiple levels of trust among those who participate in the system. As a result, it isn’t the technology but the human factor that could muddle the system.
Similarly, ADI couldn’t have started its Internet of Tomatoes project without farmers willing to try new things.
Hannah Bissex, farm to fork coordinator at The Cornucopia Project, told us, “Farmers are problem solvers. They are interested in capturing the outcome of trials.”
Cornucopia Project is an ADI partner using field-monitoring devices, produce and distribution sensors, and blockchain technology. As farmers and educators, Bissex said, “We at The Cornucopia Project, like to see where the project can go.”
Who owns the data?
Farmers participating in ADI’s tomato project are using ADI’s sensors, gateway, cloud platform, and database. Olsen made it clear that farmers will still own the data captured in the field, but they have agreed to ADI storing and curating the data and turning it into meaningful information to be shared with others.
Olsen also pointed out that according to U.S. farming data, 88% of U.S. farms are family-owned. While large farms are already heavily instrumented, a majority of small to medium farms are not. That’s why ADI believes that there is a lot of room to grow its agriculture IoT business.
Meanwhile, ripe.io’s main interest in participating in the tomato project slightly differs from ADI’s motives. The end game for ripe.io is to be the provider of the blockchain of food, serving large commercial entities, said Harris. Just as the Spotify application has pioneered the personalisation and curation of music for consumers, ripe.io believes that it can empower consumers to manage their tastes and preferences in the food they eat.
First published by EE Times U.S.