Dr. Tim Wei Weighs in on Technology Advancements in Food Manufacturing
Updated: Aug 1, 2022
What do technology advancements and food manufacturing have in common?
Timothy (Tim) Wei, PhD, the Richard L. McNeel Professor at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, shows us this connection. Prof. Wei’s research expertise lies at the intersection of fundamental fluid flow physics and problems of societal and technological importance using state-of-the-art laser-based optical measurement techniques. He has led workshops around themes of 22nd century built environment, and the nexus of advanced manufacturing and food for a growing global population.
One effort Dr. Wei continues to lead is employing advanced manufacturing technologies to make food safer, more secure, affordable, and abundant for a growing global population. The goal is to elevate the problem as a national priority and to establish a public-private partnership as part of the nation’s advanced manufacturing portfolio undergirded by basic research. What exactly does this look like for the food manufacturing industry and who is making it happen? Dr. Wei founded the Transformational Food Manufacturing Initiative, a partnership between academia, private sector food manufacturers, agronomists, and government regulators, with the idea that collective research and innovation would have a larger benefit if we all pooled our resources in pursuit of common goals and known problems.
The Transformational Food Manufacturing Initiative (TFMI) addresses two grand challenges of national and global importance:
i) ensuring a stable and sustainable supply of affordable, safe, nutritious food for a growing global population, and
ii) empowering the US food and beverage industry for global competitiveness.
Learn More at: www.transformfood.com
Meanwhile in the industry…
Technology is advancing today at a rate faster than at any time in history. Its impact on society is pervasive. Cell phones and social media, for example, are ubiquitous, even in remote corners of the planet. As such, connectivity between individuals and groups is now virtually limitless, and opportunities for good and evil are equally expansive. Examples of meta-trends that are disruptively changing society include:
the 22nd century megacity: As the world’s population grows to a projected 10B by 2050 and 15 - 20B by the end of the century, a clear trend is that people will be concentrated in megacities. Major challenges include housing, infrastructure, transportation, energy, communication, entertainment, healthcare and food for tens of millions of people living in extremely dense environments.
ubiquity of smart cities and autonomous electric vehicles: In spite of media coverage to the contrary, the rapid advance of autonomous vehicles of all types continues. The recent decision by GM to discontinue production of lines of conventional cars is a clear indicator of ongoing trends. There are tremendous potential disruptions from commerce to commuting to the geopolitical balance with a significant decrease in demand for oil.
healthcare and quality of life for a growing and aging population: The average life expectancy for a baby born in 2100 has been projected to be ~20% longer than for one born in 2000†. Requisite technological advances needed for this to happen include virtual medicine, data analytics to detect and control infectious disease, and rural healthcare.
feeding a growing global population: The ever-growing threat to society from starvation and food insecurity is a challenge that must be addressed today. There is a direct correlation between food insecurity and geopolitical events like the Arab Spring.
The 21st century will be known as a period of disruptive change. All of society, i.e. families, nations, corporations, government, education, etc., is being forced to adapt and respond in very complex and unpredictable ways. The success, and indeed the stability of a growing global society will depend on our collective ability to proactively and strategically plan for a 22nd century that will be fundamentally different from what we know today.
The acute impact of food security on global stability (left) is reflected by food riots in the Caribbean and Africa (orange) and the Arab Spring (red). With the world population estimated to grow to 9.8B by 2050, food security is becoming a global crisis.
A stark reality, however, is that much of the US food industry still uses technology dating back to the early 20th century. Shrinking margins and a heavy focus on near term profitability make individual technological transformations virtually impossible. This is a critical moment in time where further fragmentation of the food industry will lead to increased global insecurity, and a decline in American manufacturing competitiveness.
Dr. Wei’s Response was to take action
The TFMI is a comprehensive, pre-competitive, public-private partnership empowering America’s food manufacturers to make better, safer, healthier food that is more plentiful, less expensive, more secure, and better aligned with consumer tastes and values. This will be an integrated enterprise focusing on advanced manufacturing, workforce, and consumer engagement along the entire supply chain. In so doing, this Institute will advance American manufacturing competitiveness and reduce water and energy demands while helping feed a growing global population.
TFMI focuses on pre-competitive technologies related to food safety and sanitation. Significant reductions from the annual ~$10B industry-wide sanitation costs can be capitalized to transform food production beyond the initial investments and to build new state-of-the-art plants across a global market. This will be a revolutionary transformation with societal implications on par with automation revolutions that led to commoditized cars and consumer electronics.
Achieving these goals requires strategies to transcend three major technology barriers:
upgrading food product production lines using flexible automation and control,
developing safe anti-microbial materials/coatings, and
deploying sensors and data analytics across the food supply chain, from farm-to-fork.
Revolutionary innovations to traditional batch processing and creation of new continuous flow processes will be pursued. Another critical outcome will be dramatic decreases in water and energy use in both sanitation as well as production.
This enterprise will create an innovation ecosystem that:
prepares a highly skilled, technologically literate food manufacturing workforce,
establishes integrated manufacturing and safety standards around food automation, and
conducts an integrated public policy, education and marketing campaign focused on food quality, safety, and manufacturing.
Food safety and security is a critical problem in the US and worldwide. 12.3% of US households experience low food security. Food recalls cost the US food industry (and the consuming public) $50B annually  with meat recalls alone nearly tripling in the past decade .
Hey You, Get Involved!
TFMI welcomes innovative, visionary companies and organizations to join a public-private partnership to ignite the catalytic spark that not only transforms food manufacturing, but society as well; and to do it in a way that positions the U.S. food industry for increased global market share and to maintain a competitive advantage for decades to come.
If you have the desire to learn more, participate, volunteer, or sponsor a research project please visit www.transformfood.com and register for the next TFMI event in the Chicago Area at North Western University on May 8 & 9. The session will be moderated by Dr. Wei and a host of industry experts from various perspectives and backgrounds.
† Projected global life expectancy 1990 to 2100, https://www.statista.com/statistics/673420/projected-global-life-expectancy/.