Futuristic foodservice: Distributors prep for Industry 4.0

Sept. 15, 2023
Vehicle electrification, warehouse automation, and artificial intelligence technology take centerstage during International Foodservice Distributors Association’s 2023 Solutions Conference

FORT WORTH, Texas—The U.S. labor market is the tightest it’s been in the last 50 years, and the foodservice distribution industry is feeling the crunch in its warehouses and trucks. Workplace culture expert Eric Termuende cited Covid as an accelerant, and listed retirements, the gig economy, and evolving expectations as contributing factors.

But the primary culprit, he argued, is one Elon Musk has been calling out for a while now.

“We’re reproducing less than we ever have before,” Termuende said in his keynote during the International Foodservice Distributors Association’s (IFDA) 2023 Solutions Conference at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

“Reproduction rates are at an all-time low, and projected to go lower still.”

At the same time, vehicle electrification, warehouse automation, and artificial intelligence are “taking the country by storm,” he said, and new business applications are skyrocketing, despite worker shortages across multiple industries. “The workforce is reconfiguring right in front of our eyes, and the reason that’s happening is we have access to technology we never had before—and often we don’t even realize it,” he said.

IFDA members do, and the 1,630 attendees at this year’s newly rebranded Solutions Conference are doing their best to keep up. “What we’ve found is this industry wants to know more about automation solutions that can better serve their customers, take expense out of the supply chain, and create new efficiencies,” Mark Allen, IFDA president and CEO, told Refrigerated Transporter. “So they’re looking for new technologies.

“Our industry is at a tipping point—and technology automation will play a big part in that.”

See also: No bull: Utility brings Cargobull TRUs to U.S.

To aid their Industry 4.0 reconfiguration, IFDA hosted 160 exhibitors with the latest products and services—up from 125 last year—and delivered 38 educational sessions, a dozen Innovation Lab lessons, and a host of guest speakers to provide insight into the rapidly changing foodservice distribution environment.

“Keeping up to date on the latest and best practices has never been more important to compete in this evolving industry,” said Rich Wolowski, outgoing IFDA chair, and president and CEO of Gordon Food Service. “Supply chains and distribution have changed tremendously over the past three years, recent events like the Covid pandemic highlighted the need for a resilient supply chain—and time is of the essence.

“Innovation and new technologies will be a critical part of our future, especially with the labor and supply chain challenges happening today.”

IFDA also commended 14 Rising Stars, inducted 87 drivers into its Truck Driver Hall of Fame, and bestowed two honors. Mark Harman, president of Stanz Foodservice/Troyer Foods, won the Cornerstone Award, and Lisa Tobio, regional VP of human resources at Performance Food Group, secured the Mike Roach Leadership Award.

Start the slideshow for scenes from this year’s IFDA Solutions Conference—formerly the Distribution Solutions Conference—and check back here for more on Utility Trailer Manufacturing’s new partnership with European trailer manufacturer Schmitz Cargobull, Great Dane’s new integration with Thermo King transport refrigeration units (TRUs), and the rise of electric reefers with zero-emission TRUs.

The next IFDA Solutions Conference is Sept. 23-25, 2024, in Kansas City, Missouri.

“There are incredible growth opportunities in this industry,” Allen concluded. “We see distributors growing every day—so it’s an exciting time for us.”

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Jason McDaniel | Refrigerated Transporter
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