High-tech solutions required to realize personalized meals

From mass production to customized product variation in the food industry

Dinner Meal Kits Supermarket

In a world where customization is key, the way in which consumers regard their food is transforming rapidly. Allard Martinet, Director of Solutions at Marel Poultry, envisions a shift away from mass production towards a future where customers’ individual preferences take center stage and personalized ready-made dishes roll off the conveyor belts. Marel, renowned for its expertise in protein-rich food processing, including meat and meat substitutes, is at the forefront of this revolution.

[original text by Innovation Origins]

Allard Martinet notices that many food producers are investing in robotization and automation. This shift is essential as the food industry faces the limitations of existing manual and mechanical processes and systems. Intelligent automation allows for the customization of products to meet the personal preferences of customers: less mass production, more product variation.

Smart robots must accurately identify, select and process various products—an easy task for humans but difficult for algorithms.

Allard Martinet
Marel Poultry Innovation Director Products

Barbecue weather

The food industry is at a crossroads, facing increasing demand, stringent quality standards, and an explosion of product variations. Additionally, the modern consumer appreciates convenience more than ever before. Allard Martinet says, “When favorable weather for barbecues is predicted, consumers want to see ready-made satay sticks, marinated bacon strips, and customer-ready salads on the shelves the next day. The days of manually preparing chicken breast or skewers are disappearing. However, even in automated food processing factories, certain tasks still involve human intervention, particularly when flexibility and variety are required, such as answering to unexpected spikes in demand, in the case of sudden barbecue weather.

Next Tech Food Factories

Marel is involved in Next Tech Food Factories, a Dutch collaborative initiative by Brainport Development and AgriFood Capital, which brings together food processing companies, high-tech suppliers and machine builders to explore innovative technologies in food processing. The program is part of the larger NXTGEN HIGHTECH initiative, which aims to strengthen the Netherlands’ position in high tech and address societal challenges through innovation.


Dinner Meal Kit

Technology helps

It is a dilemma for the food processing industry: the increasing demand for labor-intensive ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook meals versus the severe shortage of manpower factories are facing. This creates significant challenges in food security and the transition to more sustainable production. Addressing these challenges requires innovative technological solutions. In this regard, the high-tech industry plays a pivotal role. Automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and other advanced technologies are paving the way for a new era in food processing.

Allard Martinet3

Smart automation

Advanced technologies, including sensors, digital twins and artificial intelligence, are crucial in the food factory of the future. “The market asks food manufacturers to offer diverse portion sizes and product variations, but such a production process requires more steps and also more humans to supervise or perform manual tasks. This dependency on labor is problematic due to labor scarcity. The smart, automated production lines that replace such manual operations must be capable of creating a variety of products in different ways, a challenging requirement to meet,” says Allard Martinet.

“Until now, automated lines have primarily produced the same products in large quantities. However, in the near future, smart production robots must accurately identify, select and process various products—a task that humans find effortless but poses significant challenges for computer algorithms. It is difficult to explain to a robot how to pick up gently different products without squeezing them, or how to select only qualified products with the right freshness.”

Pinpoint bacteria

Moreover, technology can outperform humans in specific areas, such as cleaning. Sensors can be employed to monitor production lines. Allard Martinet explains, “Currently, we are already following strict rules for cleaning production lines. In the future, this process can be further improved with sensors that exactly pinpoint the location of bacteria, a task beyond the capabilities of human cleaning operators. This will enable us to optimize cleaning procedures.”

Within the framework of NXTGEN, Marel can benefit from collaborating with other parties to further investigate and develop smarter production lines.

Customized meals

The current trend is pushing toward greater convenience for consumers, but Allard Martinet envisions a future where food production is entirely personalized to individual preferences, with the help of new technologies. “We aim to configure smart production lines that can put out customized meals with personalized ingredients and portion sizes. Consumers can then adjust each meal with options like extra vegetables, less sauce, or other adjustments according to their desires. Such production lines could be located at regional supermarket distribution centers.”

We aim to configure smart production lines that can put out customized meals with personalized ingredients and portion sizes

Allard Martinet
Marel Poultry Innovation Director Products

The fresh dilemma

However, along with the technical challenges of automation, logistical hurdles must be overcome. Naturally, fresh products must be part of such customized meals, but their perishability poses a challenge in minimizing waste. Artificial intelligence is being explored to optimize the timely ordering of fresh products, ensuring that sufficient but not too many products are in stock, thereby contributing to reducing food waste.

Partnered innovations

Technology can and must go a long way in reshaping food production to meet the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s consumers. Collaboration across the entire food chain is therefore essential, bringing together all players who contribute to the meal on the consumer’s plate. In this way, Next Tech Food Factories can help drive innovation in the industry. High-tech innovations have the potential to revolutionize the food industry, but successful implementation requires enduring partnerships and a shared commitment to smart solutions “The innovations we are working on today are not strictly Marel innovations. The whole chain is involved,” concludes Allard Martinet.

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