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Testing – How Bizerba and Microsoft help to prevent food waste

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Bizerba (Germany) – IoT helps prevent food waste. Bizerba’s Azure-based ‘smart shelves’ enable predictive approach to inventory and production.

Germany throws away almost 12 million metric tons of food every year. Bizerba SE & Co KG wants to help reduce this amount with its Smart Shelf solution, which is based on Microsoft Azure. The company, which has been family-owned for more than 150 years, is now an international provider of digital solutions for industry and retail.

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As a market leader in retail weighing, slicing, and labeling technology, the company has been in existence for decades: every third item of food sold worldwide has at some point come into contact with one of Bizerba’s solutions. Its newly developed Smart Shelf solution enables constant and automated inventory monitoring. In food retail, for example, the data it collects can be used to optimize processes, resulting in immediate benefits and helping to avoid food waste.

The challenge: Digital inventory monitoring helps prevent food waste:

It was impossible to imagine the opportunities offered by digitalization back in 1866 when Andreas Bizer first began his small operation producing weighbridges, tabletop scales, and beam balances in Balingen, southwest Germany. Before long, his company grew to become the nation’s largest producer of weighing scales, and a true hidden champion. Supermarkets have been using Bizerba’s scales, checkout systems, and slicing machines for decades.

“It was a logical step for us to apply our retail sector expertise to developing digital products solutions for known issues,” explains Franziska Klaiber, Product Line Manager, Global Retail at Bizerba. “Inventory monitoring plays a key role in retail. It’s a predominantly manual task that has store employees walking through the aisles and checking the levels of stock on the shelves. They decide there and then if more needs to be ordered or produced—a highly subjective process shaped by personal experience.” Wrong decisions result in overcrowded shelves: if there are too many products and they don’t sell fast enough; the worst-case scenario is that they have to be thrown out when they reach their “best-before” date.

“We wanted to find a solution to avoid wasting food like that—and we used our core area of expertise, weighing, to do just that,” says Stefan-Maria Creutz, Vice President, Global Digital Transformation at Bizerba. “Our vision was to have shelves that constantly check their own stock levels and provide data that can be used to manage reordering and for process optimization. And that’s precisely what we achieved by using in-shelf IoT sensors in conjunction with Azure,” he says.

The solution: Smart shelves based on Bizerba’s center of mass algorithm:

Bizerba combined its innovative weighing technology with retail shelving systems, resulting in shelves capable of monitoring and checking their own inventory. “In-shelf weighing sensors enable us to determine what has been taken from the shelf with millimeter precision,” Klaiber explains. What makes the solution unique is that it doesn’t weigh individual sections of the shelf but the whole surface area. If a product is removed, the sensors detect the difference in weight and assign it to an X and a Y coordinate using Bizerba’s patented center of mass algorithm. These coordinates are then sent to Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform via Azure IoT Hub. “The idea is to use the data in as many ways as possible,” Creutz says. “Our cloud application assigns the coordinates to an article number saved in the system. That makes it possible to track what product has been taken from what location.” IoT Hub also enables this data to be integrated into customers’ process chains. By connecting the oven used to supply a supermarket’s self-service bakery to the Smart Shelf application, for example, production of the baked goods can be adjusted in line with current stock levels. If the shelf detects that pretzels are running low, the oven automatically activates the appropriate baking program—producing the exact quantities required to restock the shelf.

“Choosing Azure for our Smart Shelf application was exactly the right decision,” Klaiber explains. “Besides optimizing our data handling, Azure IoT Hub lets us tailor a broad portfolio of solutions to our customers’ requirements.” This enables supermarkets to use dynamic pricing, in which the electronic price displayed for the self-service bakery products changes based on how full the compartments are. Products from full shelves are priced lower—making them more attractive to buyers—than products running low on stock. This alone can drastically reduce the amount of food that goes to waste. “Weather data, the day of the week, the time of day, and historical data can also factor into the price adjustments,” Klaiber continues. “Or, instead of dynamic pricing, you could use dynamic advertising as a cost-effective way to target potential customers precisely when it counts.”

This hybrid model of traditional and innovative business is paying off: Bizerba generates annual sales of EUR700 million (approximately USD815 million) worldwide. And there’s no shortage of ideas for the future; for example, the company plans to use its center of mass algorithm in conjunction with Microsoft Azure Machine Learning as a basis for further digital solutions.

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