For many people, the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is futuristic and confusing—something of fantasy novels and films where the machines threaten to overrun and rule the human race.

It’s true that the potential and power of AI is limitless. It’s incredible, really, the capabilities of this new technology. But AI isn’t something to be feared. Instead, it’s something to be embraced. Because it’s changing the way the world works—for the better, too.

AI, specifically, is transforming how food manufacturers operate. We want to be clear from the beginning, though; AI can’t tell you how to make your business better. Only you know what makes your business run well. Having said that, AI can use what you know, learn what you do, and actually make your business better. AI can streamline processes, make data-backed decisions, cut costs, and reduce the risk of human error.

For food manufacturers, that means AI opens up a new realm of possibilities.

The Hershey Company, one of the most iconic food manufacturers in the world, has completely changed how they do business thanks to Microsoft AI technology. They have found answers to questions that seemed impossible before integrating AI. Now, with this new amalgamation, The Hershey Company can act upon the data they are collecting and leverage it in ways.

With Microsoft AI, The Hershey Company was able to increase its bottom line, save a considerable amount of money, and improve access to data across the company. After analyzing the various sources of variability in their production processes, The Hershey Company applied the AI functionalities to a small area of their Twizzler operations. They ended up saving half a million dollars as a result. As the former Senior Manager of Workspace Solutions, George Lenhart said, “Every time you reduce variability, you increase money.”

In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into AI, particularly as it relates to food manufacturers.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

AI has the ability to learn and then take smart, informed actions based on what it has learned—it often involves quick, complex calculations and data analysis. Users must feed AI information so that it can learn and grow. In doing this, your system will become smarter and help you make better decisions about running your specific business. Kind of like how a person thinks—only because of the complexity and analysis capabilities of it—AI can process so much more data; humans simply do not have a capacity like that.

Microsoft said it best, “AI-infused software applications and cloud services drive innovative customer experiences, augment human capabilities and transform how we live, work and play.”

AI technology can learn from experience, analyze data, optimize functions, and execute human tasks with an increased level of precision and efficiency. This more informed decision making allows room for enhanced accuracy and efficiency in whatever environment it’s applied.

Additionally, AI can help tighten up essential processes—like food safety and preventative maintenance—that can make or break a food manufacturing plant.

Microsoft AI-powered software was able to help The Hershey Company detect changes in the licorice temperature when producing Twizzlers. Because they were able to react in real-time to this variable—something they would not be able to do without AI—they were able to maintain production speed and save the company money.

Because of AI’s acute visibility into all processes on the production floor, The Hershey Company was able to reduce the number of errors in production as well as any associated costs.

How Do AI and Food Manufacturing Work Together?

Food production is a precise, process-oriented industry. For today’s food manufacturing companies, finding ways to improve operations, make better decisions, and leverage innovative technology is essential to growth and remaining competitive.

AI technology, if implemented correctly, would enable food manufacturers of all sizes to enhance their operating processes and inevitably strengthen their bottom lines.

So what exactly can AI do? AI makes informed decisions in real-time, whether that involves preventing a problem or streamlining a process.

Let’s say you run a bakery that makes beautiful, intricately-decorated cakes; they’re sold in grocery stores all across the United States. They’re in-demand, they’re delicious, and the processes for making the cakes rely heavily on consistency in the baking process. With this process, obviously, there’s quite a bit of variability—maybe the butter isn’t exactly the right temperature, or different brands of sugar are added to different batches. If the processes aren’t entirely consistent, the resulting cakes aren’t going to be consistent either.

There are so many factors that go into the final product of something. No matter what that specific something is, AI can help analyze and streamline processes based on the data you feed it.

That’s the beauty of AI: it’s able to analyze all aspects of your business (based on what you tell it) and then make those necessary adjustments. It can keep these kinds of variabilities low by analyzing the data so that the impact is minimal, detecting potential issues with the process or product, like inconsistencies with the temperature of the butter used to make the cakes, before production actually reaches that point.

AI can help companies react to situations on the floor as they occur using real-time data, identifying potential issues long before they happen. In a way, AI acts as a form of automation; it’s routinely monitoring for problems, transforming the factory’s productivity and output. Only it’s not automated; it’s thinking. In the same way that you or I would think to solve a problem, only it does it exponentially quicker and with a kind of all-encompassing vision into company processes. That kind of insight just isn’t possible for a person. With AI, managers can understand issues, plan for potential risks, and act based on actual data that their system provides to them.

AI functionality within your ERP could help your business in the same way that it helped The Hershey Company, by strategically analyzing your data, sharing those insights with you, and encouraging you to make smarter decisions in the process.

What Does the Future Look Like for Food Manufacturing With AI?

AI is so valuable for food manufacturing companies because of its ability to analyze data sets and project estimated outcomes based on a variety of factors. Here are three specific ways AI can improve operations for food manufacturing plants everywhere:

1. Innovative Production with AI Imaging

With food production, it’s crucial to gain real-time insights into exactly what’s happening on the shop floor. This is the only way to ensure things are running smoothly.

Quality control is a typically labor-intensive job. But with AI and image recognition, you can train your system either accept or reject an individual product as it’s made on the production line. Either the tortilla meets quality standards or not. Employees generally do this job, but AI can accomplish the same task twenty-four hours a day for far less costs.

2. Fine-Tuning Forecasting and Cash Flow

There are many moving parts in a food manufacturing plant. AI can help companies better plan for and make decisions around situations and potential outcomes, including payments and invoicing.

AI can monitor and analyze payment collection data; the system actually predicts which accounts are more likely to make a late payment and prompt those same companies to take action prior to missing the invoice date. This would help to improve cash flow and help companies run a more predictable Accounts Receivable department.

3. Optical Character Recognition Eliminates Guesswork

With character recognition technology, AI can help organizations automatically pull important details from one document and place it into another document without the need to manually input that data. AI can learn to recognize the text, identify it, and then pull it based on what you’ve taught it. So if you taught your AI functionality that the remittance date is always at the top right-hand corner, it’s going to move forward with that knowledge. AI can recognize specific texts (that you tell it you’re looking for) no matter their orientation within a document (scanned in or typed) or image (if the photo has text in it) that you’ve previously put in the system.

AI Is Changing the Way Food Manufacturers Do Business

Humans are amazing; really, they’re incredible: Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, J.K. Rowling inspired an entire generation of readers, and Edward Jenner introduced vaccines to the world. AI-powered technology enables people to do all of that and more.

In a food manufacturing facility, you have great people already working for you. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will enable your already great employees to become much more effective.

AI offers insights that just aren’t possible for people on their own; we don’t have the brain capacity. It can analyze high volumes of data, can contextualize that data, and can do it at an incredibly fast rate, exponentially quicker than that of a human mind. That kind of processing speed and accuracy makes anything possible.

In modern food manufacturing, AI is able to analyze thousands of data points so businesses are truly able to understand the impact of every factor affecting their production, quality, and costs.

But AI isn’t possible with the help of the good employees. AI is limited by ideation. It can’t make decisions or analyses without first being taught what it should be doing.

With AI, companies can provide their employees with the data and insights to do things that were merely just ideas. It can empower employees by allowing them access to the right information, allowing them to better utilize their tools and their time to inevitably strengthen their bottom line.

Though AI can completely revolutionize the way food manufacturing companies do business, it can’t tell them how to do it. It’s up to you and your company to figure out how AI can best work for you. It’s a long process, but in the end, for all the data and insight and capability it provides for you and your company, it’s totally worth it.

Want to learn more about how AI works with a food-specific ERP? Watch how AI is directly integrated into JustFood ERP in the demo below.