About the author: Ethan Beswick is a Research Director at Ava Winery in San Francisco where he is responsible for the identification and re-creation of the physical and chemical properties of wine. He is passionate about products and technologies that push us further into the future as well as those that bring us closer to what we eat. This passion has been the common thread throughout his career, leading a number of high-impact innovation initiatives at breakthrough food & beverage companies.
Changing the food landscape (or even a small part of it) is frequently met with derision thanks to the relatable nature of food. After all, everybody eats, right?
Fortunately, we food scientists get to share in the novel discoveries and tools of the core sciences. We test very different limits of experiments due to the natural origins and ultimate uses of food. Technology, as it relates to food science, is often associated with tainting or even destroying the foods we love. I see it from a different angle. Advances in technology can help us to truly understand a natural product better and get it to your table fresher, more consistently, and with better nutrition than ever before.
Today’s food and beverage R&D lab
Some people expect food labs to be some sort of Frankenstein area rife with dangerous experiments and malicious intent, but most facilities are much more benign. While our analytical labs might as well be facsimiles of their pharmaceutical origins, an applications lab is dotted with balances, mixers, ovens, fridges and freezers – familiar objects to everyone.
However, given that small-scale, industrial-quality equipment is expensive and hasn’t changed much in the past 30 years, these aren’t exactly the high-tech kitchens of the future. Manual input, recording, and evaluation of minor physical changes are constantly required. That means that we in the food industry, like nearly every other lab, are susceptible to the common errors: transcription, omission of components, and expired ingredients. Electronic lab notebooks and outdated but modern-seeming lab management software are often cumbersome and work against a scientist’s workflow. However, connecting equipment and experiments to a single online dashboard via the Internet of Things (IoT) can serve as a perfect support system to your day-to-day.
The possibilites of a connected lab
Critical material storage
When working with food, we need to be sure it’s safe and within quality standards. Maintaining a record is well and good, but given the physical interaction with the product, we need further assurances. Temperature monitoring is one way we do this, and it has come a long way in terms of connectivity over the last few years. If our -80 degree freezer has a fault or loses power or our ambient temperature rises in our storage areas, we have to know about it -- when it happened and for how long. The next few weeks or months of testing may rely on those samples and ultimately impact our quality and shelf-life evaluations [read: big bucks on the line]. Being notified of these simple issues, even when we aren’t physically in the lab, is an obvious need for any labs’ critical material storage. What we need, that isn’t yet standardized in temperature monitoring, is the ability to monitor and analyze environmental parameter trends over time.
Next, let’s take a simple workflow like weighing. Imagine being able to augment the standard record-keeping of ingredient weighing with automatic, digitally-logged timestamps and notations. The lab manager in me can’t imagine a better safety net. When you consider that the experiments may number dozens per day, the limits of a scientists’ recall becomes very important and this log becomes even more critical. Most balances record weights for GLPs, but without a connected balance, we can’t know anything more about the measure.
What about the benefits of IoT for the person running the experiments? Imagine five mixers with different formulations being prepared side-by-side. With a single set of eyes or an individual camera, the scientist can review a single sample. Considering we look for product quality over 1-minute timelines, a few seconds actually make a huge difference. With IoT, we can connect cameras to simultaneously capture and record not only the mixing, but also the finished product over time. A scientist could refer to empirical evidence and a digital record of all the trials with very little fuss: Simple, easy, and repeatable.
Some of us are lucky enough to be able to gather information via textural analysis, chromatography, NMR and the like, which generate large amounts of data. Because each of these platforms is often made by a different manufacturer, it’s nearly impossible to find a streamlined solution that allows us to wrangle all of that data and gain any sort of insights on experimental progress and errors throughout the process. Understanding the equipment status becomes exceedingly more valuable over time.
If we can aggregate all of that data and gain a vantage point on the run times and downtimes of everything (from the pumps to the columns to the time of the last calibration curve), the connected lab becomes even more powerful. Scheduling downtimes and evaluating inefficiencies in the analysis process is as easy as comparing a few graphs. Being able to set reminders for repeat calibrations and other standard maintenance procedures can be invaluable in a multi-system laboratory like ours.
Fortunately, all of these processes are innate for the connected lab. It’s incredible how much time and energy are expended each day, from interns through PhDs, to understanding what happened to an experiment. We can rarely track the errors or get useful feedback from proprietary systems. The IoT lab that connects instrumentation and equipment across manufacturers to a single “mission control” can keep you organized and troubleshoot for you.
The future of food
The world of food has been able to utilize the best concepts from the rest of science. With new data, workflow and experimental designs, as well as integrated safety nets, our food is not only safer but also more consistent. I am optimistic that the connected lab will bring us closer to what we eat in every way.