AI meets the food industry – Malaysia sets the scene

Nasi lemak kukus
Nasi lemak kukus, popular traditional Malaysian local food. Image by szefei | Bigstockphoto

Reflecting global trends, multiple digitalisation projects, which could potentially revolutionise certain aspects of the food industry, are underway in Asia. As Malaysians are renowned for their willingness to travel all over the country to enjoy the definitive version of national dishes, the digitalisation of its food sector is of special interest.

On a wider level, securing and enhancing food productivity is rising to the top of national agendas around the world, spurred by the need to reduce carbon footprint.

In addition to geopolitical and economic pressures deepened by COVID-19 along with other crises, we are haunted by the challenge of rising populations. Some studies expect food demand to jump from 59 to 98% by 2050.

AI and machine learning being trialled

In an attempt to meet this demand, technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) are being trialled and implemented throughout the food sector– from managing the supply chain, food sorting, food science enhancement, production development, food quality improvement, and proper industrial hygiene. In addition, advances in food packaging contribute to an improved carbon footprint.

McKinsey’s Food Processing & Handling: Ripe for Disruption report estimated that the sectors involved in food processing and handling will grow at a CAGR of 5% until 2021. Moving to more recent times, the company pointed to the risk of a global food crisis arising from climate change, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine

The entire chain of planting, harvesting, production and transporting, right through to preparation and delivery to consumers, throws up multiple points for digitalisation to improve speed, productivity, reliability, and reduced costs. In forthcoming articles, we’ll look at different aspects of this journey.

Reports by MarketsandMarkets see the global AI in the food and beverage market size at about US$2.2 billion in 2020, which and envisioned to reach US$11.7 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 30.8%. The need for more robust supply chain management underpins the cause of digital adoption in the search for better production efficiency and quality control.

AI in food processing

A quick view of AI in food processing reveals its growth as a valuable manufacturing sector. The US Department of Agriculture noted that food and beverage plants already accounted for 15.8% back in 2019, employing some 1.5 million workers. As this is a high volume, low margin sector, any solutions – such as the adroit use of digital technologies – to enhance efficiency are top of the agenda.

Industry commentators usually single out five general areas in food processing that benefit from AI applications: planting & harvesting, sorting of food & packaging; ensuring safety compliance; enhancing cleanliness; developing products; and personalised marketing.

Moving to the consumer, the Covid phase boosted online food ordering and home delivery, a trend that shows signs of continuing into the future. In addition, data-driven predictive systems are on the rise. McDonalds in 2019 started using such systems to accelerate drive-through service.

View on Malaysia

In common with other sectors, robots and automated systems are set to transform the food industry, according to MIDA (Malaysian Investment Development Authority). Certainly, a heightened focus on technology and innovation will help prepare the food and beverage sector to tap growth opportunities in the digital era.

With an eye on IR4 (industrial revolution 4.0) readiness, the organisation’s role is to incentivise and encourage digital adoption across various production and manufacturing industries, including, of course, areas such as agritech, food safety and logistics.

From a national perspective, infrastructure giants and other players are continuing to move forward to meet the anticipated demand for enhanced, resilient and more pervasive connectivity.

AI vs machine learning

According to some commentators, humans developed AI to mimic human behaviours. However, machine learning is taking these to new levels, allowing the absorption of data and applying algorithms to generate both predictive patterns and take traditional tastes into the future.

The keys to making this happen include cultivating a collaborative spirit– involving long-term partnerships among international and local stakeholders – on governmental, enterprise and entrepreneur levels to drive innovation across the sector in Malaysia and the region.

Infrastructure sovereignty

Data centres are continuing to grow in Asia, reflecting increasing demand in the region. Interestingly, the Q3 2022 Knight Frank Data Centre report highlights the trend towards more localised data centre facilities in this region. Local regulations and demands for data privacy and data sovereignty are feeding this trend.

The Telekom Malaysia (TM) Group, which includes the enterprise and public sector services arm TM One, has, in recent years, ramped up its data centre and service capabilities.

In addition to the financial industry, for example, government sectors and services deal with highly personal citizenry as well as national security data, cloud providers such as TM’s sovereign cloud infrastructure need to be well positioned in this respect. TM is also the only homegrown end-to-end cloud services provider in a group initially formed to support digitalisation initiatives in the public sector.

Shazurawati Abd Karm

Shazurawati Abd Karm, who helms TM One as its executive vice president, explained that TM One’s human-centred approach: “[This] is to develop a matrix of trust with AI-driven smart services and other technologies to augment human life. One of the central aims for smart services is enhancing customer experience and transforming the way we work, live and even innovate.”

TM One is intent on creating connected and intelligent ecosystems, enabling the movement of data in near real-time to inspire ideas for new revenue streams, drive greater efficiencies, and empower people.

During an industry leadership panel on digitalising production, highlighted last year in a Disruptive.Asia feature, TM One’s Rejab Sulaiman, vice president, Products & Innovation, said the company had evolved a reliable solid foundation to help industries innovate and enhance business models. These included a range of technologies, expertise and relevant skills to help enable transformation across Malaysia’s various manufacturing and production sectors.

Digital transformation

“Digital transformation is a process of moving to a technology-enabled platform to positively change a business model while providing new revenue streams and after-sales opportunities.”

He explained with smart manufacturing, the objective is to inculcate automation by digitalising every relevant touchpoint, such as digital supply chains, connecting and informing customers and realise business imperatives with actionable data.

The crux of such a journey is about connecting machines to systems, monitoring and tracking, analysing the data, and applying intelligent devices towards semi-automation – all part of a process towards full automation of production and the digitalisation of the ecosystem, aiming for 100% work efficiency.

Food outlets

In these uncertain economic times, automation is already at work helping humans maintain the traditional qualities of Malaysia’s varied cuisine while enhancing preparation, delivery and competitive costs.

Moving to the consumer-facing end of the food industry, we see examples of the use of AI in certain aspects of service at some food outlets in Malaysia, such as:

You’ll note that AI is being used only in a part of the food preparation and serving chain and also that adoption is still in the infancy stage in Malaysia.

There are innovative and more immersive uses of AI in the food chain on the way, especially among startups.

AI Pioneers and the future of food culture

Recent examples of Malaysian startups using AI in this sector include:

  • Sensory Seed utilises machine learning and AI to develop new products and enhance existing ones for food companies. Data analysis is used to arrive at recommendations for product enhancements.
  • The Apothecary’s Pantry (known as TAP) focuses on consumers and helps them to choose food related to their health. The startup serves up customised food aligned to an individual’s dietary and health objectives. Such startups use technology to help consumers make more informed choices about their food and health.

The unique use of nanotechnology

expert in AI-powered food production
Kith Ng Weng Keat

To track the different ways in which AI is poised to revolutionise the industry, we started talking with Kith Ng Weng Keat of Sense5 Group, a Malaysian-born expert in AI-powered food production. His use of an advanced AI tool called Aily has been extended to the country and is tackling its array of traditional dishes.

Malaysia’s highly regarded tasty cuisine has found a new partner in artificial intelligence (AI) systems to enhance the food industry, he said.

AI and machine learning in restaurants has shifted beyond a fad. It helps to streamline the restaurant sector, reduce costs and deliver better profits; Kith explained on-site of one of his pilot projects– a food concept space in Sri Petaling, KL.

“Further benefits so far include smarter staffing and scheduling, reduced errors, optimising preparation and delivery processes.”

Efficiency and reduced wastage

Additionally, efficiency and reduced wastage are aligned with greener and more sustainable demands on production these days.

Other possibilities abound, such as augmenting kitchen staff with robotics, enabling more efficient central and outlet kitchens. His use of AI technology innovation is holistic: embracing a land-to-plate methodology.

However, it is Kith’s positive disruptive use of AI-assisted nanotechnology in food preparation that draws special interest, which is an area we will cover in a future article when we visit his lab.

A general example was given by a computer vision expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology (GA Tech), Dr Irfan Essa, who explained that automated systems can draw multiple data on a single ingredient – such as a potato moving along a production line – in seconds, and help meet quality standards and reduce waste. This allows each ingredient in a food product needs to be inspected

Kith’s innovative and food technology contributions include canonising spice ingredients in the food preparation process. Canonisation reduces spice ingredients to particles of nanometre-scale without changing their chemical properties. This initiative delivers, which significantly expands the surface area coverage of the spice particles, brings several efficiency benefits such as a dramatic enhancement of taste, and requires much reduced amounts of spices.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, Kith said his use of AI, big data, and other technologies will work with Malaysians to identify the definitive version of their favourite national dishes. The aim is to consistently and efficiently produce and serve these dishes to consumers. “Our key aims in this concept include prioritising traditional home-cooked taste, quality and affordability. After all, a country’s food is a vital part of its culture and heritage: and today’s technologies can help preserve and keep alive the best traditions into the future.”

Note: This overview article has only touched on many of the dots – comprising national, enterprise, and entrepreneurial stakeholders – in this complex food ecosystem. To dive deeper into ground level and to better understand how different innovative solutions are disrupting the food industry, I will be complementing some of my forthcoming articles with a series of podcasts. In addition to the food industry, these podcasts will spotlight up-and-coming leaders across all industries, as well as future disruptors from the younger generations.

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