"Are European agrifood SMEs ready for the adoption of artificial intelligence?"
This is the question that Carmen Galindo, Project Manager at EIT Food South, Antonio Vicente, CEO at AI Talentum and Idoia Olabarrieta, senior researcher at AZTI answered in a round table on the 17th of June at Food4Future. This Summit took place from June 15th to 17th 2021 in Bilbao Exhibition Centre to showcase the latest technologies, solutions and automation systems that are transforming the food industry.
A year ago, EIT Food launched a survey to analise the level of digitalisation of agrifood SMEs across Europe. This study counted on the collaboration of 474 companies operating in the food and beverage sector in several European countries such as France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Poland. Most of the companies were SME, and were classified within the “Food Manufacturing Sector” since their activity was centred in transforming foodstuff into ingredients, and the rest of the companies belonged to the “Fresh Product Manufacturing” category, as they worked on the preservation of agricultural products or its transformation into edible food. SMEs are more prone to invest in new tools and embrace the digital transformation but there’ is still a long way to go to achieve that goal. The main focus of the survey relied on finding out the actual level of adoption of AI-based tools in the industry. The survey was, therefore, structured into four categories to collects more precise information:
- What is the level of understanding about AI across the sector?
- How is DATA being gathered, stored and analysed at the different stages of the food chain?
- What kind of technologies are companies already using?
- What are the barriers and drivers for AI adoption?
According to the survey findings, SMEs’ readiness level to adopt AI depends on the understanding their management board has. The management board of higher income level companies have a greater understanding of what AI is, and what it can offer to their business. Most companies understand how they can benefit from AI at product level, however, when it comes to the benefits of AI in business areas, such as human resources management, the conclusions show they are still unknown for many of the companies and there is still a lot of work to be done in order to adopt them.
Furthermore, over two thirds of the industry gather and store data in a way or another. Most of the dat collected is stored in Microsoft Excel and enterprise resources planning systems but with a low level of consolidation which leads to 50% of the data not being analysed by the companies. By cross-analysing the data it was discovered that the adoption readiness level of a company is highly dependent on how impactful the AI could be for their business. Therefore, the companies that perceive the benefits are the ones pouring more efforts and resources in collecting and analysing the data and adopting the required methods for its implementation. In addition to what was mentioned above, results show that 61% of the companies that understand the benefits AI offers, have already placed some AI-based technologies, such as namely robots or sensing technologies. Although near 60% of the respondents declared not using any AI technologies or even having any method tools or processes in order to adopt it.
And, which direction is going to take this situation in the future? The reality is that only 12% of the SMEs are planning to invest in AI technologies in a short-term future, but it is remarkable that more than half of them do not have a plan and the rest has not made a decision about it.
Finally, it is worth noting that the top barriers that are preventing the wider adoption of AI technologies are related the personnel: less than 5% of the employees have the understanding about how artificial intelligence could benefit their business. In addition to this, relevant profiles such as data engineers or data architects are limited and difficult to engage. Other barriers to be highlighted are related to the lack of investments and the concerns about data security.
The round table participants concluded from all of the previously mentioned that companies should focus on interconnectivity; “Only through connectivity of the full chain can a smart process be built”, strategy; “A strategic mindset, able to think in the longer term, is needed to fully reap up the benefits”, and education; “Only through education targeting all the stakeholders of the chain can the digital transformation become a reality.” said Vicente.
After all of the explanations and conclusions extracted from the survey, Galindo, Vicente and Olabarrieta shared with the audience several projects they have been working on in which AI technologies have been implemented. To mention a few: IFishCan, SAIFE and T-Food.
To conclude the round table, the audience was able to ask a few questions to the experts. They asked about the decision of focusing on safety for the employees in workspaces, to which Vicente replied “creating a safety place for all the employees of the company is necessary, so that something dangerous could be prevented”.