Last month, we had one of the first public views of Eden, Walmart’s suite of produce management applications. Eden may be one of the most ambitious efforts to harness the power of food data. An internal application aimed for use by Walmart’s associates, it addresses the three critical challenges that have been holding back the use of supply chain data. Eden might offer an important model for farmers using big data at the other end of the supply chain.
1—First and foremost, Eden distills a mountain of data— combining the latest information from Walmart’s distributors with USDA food product specifications and Walmart’s own product standards. Walmart has used more than a million photos to create what it calls a “freshness algorithm” that prioritizes the flow of perishable goods from farm to store. Industry analyst Dan Alaimo writes that Eden provides a framework for integrating existing data flows from the supply chain. Today, Eden tracks a continuous record of storage area temperatures and temperature control devices on trucks. According to Parvez Musani, Walmart’s Vice President of Supply Chain Technology Engineering at Walmart Labs, the technology will soon tap into data from the farms of Walmart’s suppliers. “We’ll have drones flying over the farms” to monitor temperatures and other factors that determine the quality of the produce Walmart is getting from suppliers, Musani said. For example, bananas, one of Walmart’s most popular items, travel from seven countries in Latin America to over 4,000 stores in the U.S. In the future, Eden will be able to track storage temperature during transport, recalculate the freshness factor and re-route the shipment.
2—Eden structures and prioritizes data: Walmart has defined a data ontology that drives mission-critical day-to-day operations, from tracking food safety to delivery schedules. The Eden system is designed to learn, comparing images scanned in the field, at a distribution center, or a store with a library of acceptable and unacceptable samples in the database. With Eden, Walmart aims to estimate an exact shelf-life for each product.
Eden is a major investment and presents some business risk as well as business opportunity. Computer-driven produce management may miss details that long-established manual processes track today. No doubt Walmart will need to track operational issues that emerge with the new system and invest to develop data sources.
3— Eden is a pioneering application because is aims to provide this complex store of data to a massive population of associates throughout Walmart stores in the US. “Eden leverages sophisticated technologies such as machine learning, but we’ve made it simple enough for all of our associates to use, “ notes Musani. Employees at Walmart’s distribution centers use Eden on handheld devices to create a digital record of defects and remove produce that doesn’t pass USDA and Walmart quality requirements.
Since it deployed Eden to 43 food-distribution centers in January of 2017, Walmart estimates that it has saved $86 million in food waste, according to Musani. Over the next five years, Walmart aims to save $2 billion in food waste. Reliably stocking high-quality produce might be a major competitive advantage over other grocery retailers.
“Shoppers frequently make their harshest and sometimes final decisions about the desirability of a grocery store based on the quality and freshness of its produce. It’s often their first and most lasting impression,” notes Alaimo. Big data offers massive efficiencies to grocers, but its value is proportional to the degree to which Walmart can deliver insights to the associates on the front lines, in the stores, in the distribution centers, in the merchandise buying groups.
As farmers decide when to plant, spray, irrigate and harvest, they need to consider data on weather, soil, historic yields and market pricing. On a single screen, Walmart’s Eden shows weight, defect grade, size, and temperature, with easy access to detailed reports. Which agtech company will develop the Eden app for growers?