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The data journey: helping small businesses with supply collaboration

Posted 19 Apr 2022

The data journey: helping small businesses with supply collaboration

Ben Ramsden, Partnership Manager for Food & Drink at Digital Catapult


Did you know that the food and drink industry is the manufacturing sector’s largest contributor to GDP?

And, while the food & drink manufacturing sector is  dominated by 10 well-known companies, over 96% of the sector is made up of  small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Unpredictable supply shocks and severe disruptions from COVID-19 have highlighted – for large corporations and SMEs alike – the importance of a collaborative supply chain through improved data sharing and traceability.

SME challenges

Advanced industrial digital technologies (IDTs) unlock a wealth of opportunities for supply chains, with the ability to improve availability of information across the whole supply chain network – increasing trust, collaboration and flexibility to change.

However, as examined in engagement sessions held by Digital Catapult as part of the KnowRisk project, SMEs often have poor adoption rates of advanced digital technologies compared to their larger counterparts.

Of course, integrated new technologies require investment, training and resources – something SMEs often don’t have at their direct disposal.

However, through collaboration with the correct parties, and with the right opportunities to trial technologies and prove their worth, early adopters can gather expertise, develop business advantages, and instil trust in the solution – all of which  unlock the network effect to adopt digitalisation and collectively reduce risk.

Sustainability, resilience and productivity opportunities


At Digital Catapult, in our unique position working with organisations across sectors and supply chains, government and academia, we have seen first-hand how digitalisation can positively impact UK manufacturers and the wider supply chain, within and beyond the food & drink sector.

Creating a data-enabled, intelligent supply chain can allow businesses to work ‘smarter’ – enabling real-time visibility of state and location of products, allowing them to improve maintenance, and reduce waste and spoilage in the supply chain.

Perhaps most importantly, this also means businesses can better prepare, respond and recover to changes in demand – avoiding the type of crises that have led to empty shelves the past two years. This ethos is at the centre of cross-industry projects like Made Smarter’s Digital Supply Chain Hub (DSCH), to help manufacturers integrate advanced digital technologies to enable National level supply chain collaboration, improve resilience and risk, reduce scope 3 emissions and address logjams in supply chains.

Collaborative technologies

Technologies, like companies in supply chains, work best in collaboration rather than alone.

With the Internet of Things (IoT), we are able to collect, in real or near time, live information on the processes within and between companies, and completely replace the need for paper-based systems.

When this is combined with artificial intelligence – with its incredible ability to analyse large volumes of data patterns and relationships – companies can optimise their processes, predict delays or changes in demand, and even signal in advance when a fault in the production line is about to occur in ways previously unimaginable.  When we then bring distributed systems – like blockchain – into the mix, this highly secure technology can then transform the way we approach auditing and supply chain finance.

Journey to a demonstrator

Digital Catapult is proud to be part of the ‘Digital Sandwich’ project, with its ambitious objective to create a modular platform to allow food and drinks businesses to connect online and share valuable data.

Looking back nearly 3 years since the project was first conceived, the world has changed in ways we couldn’t have imagined;  from leaving the EU, to COVID-19, global supply chain shocks and now war in Europe.  In spite of everything our group of innovators, led by Raynor Foods, are continuing to pioneer a new approach to the supply chain.

The outcome of our work will allow small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), who don’t usually have access to this kind of technology, to benefit.

We’re leading on platform coordination bringing our experience in working with advanced digital technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence, and distributed ledger technologies to the consortium – as well as providing access to leading edge expertise and R&D specialisms to drive the project forward.

An important milestone

Through our work on the Digital Sandwich, we’re now testing functionality that is central to the supply chain’s ‘Golden Thread’ – a digitised thread of information, or ‘digital passport’ – that captures an item’s journey through the supply chain, from farm to fork.

The focus of our first development phase was building the technology stack to support real-time information flow within one ‘node’ or part of the supply network; in this case, Raynor Foods’ manufacturing unit, from arrivals to dispatch. This included building the platform that can integrate with customers’ existing systems, extract  intelligence that already exists in-house, and combine it with real-time metadata provided by the IoT technology. This is an important building block in our journey and takes the consortium one step closer to being able to connect all the nodes in a supply chain.

This work will eventually enable communication between product management, procurement planning teams, production workers, and even auditors. We’re carrying out testing on the part of the supply chain journey of a ham and cheese sandwich, which begins with the production management team and ends with the team managing the sandwich in the storage area, receiving area and sterilisation room.

A streamlined future

On the road to a more profitable, sustainable and resilient future, streamlining bumpy, fragmented supply chains is a mammoth task, but one industry cannot afford to neglect.

With SMEs, corporates and government joining this important movement – and with projects like the Digital Sandwich and DSCH, allowing for more experimentation and opportunities to gather and share data – the future ahead looks bright.


For more information about Digital Sandwich, click here.