Technology beats kitchen bugs

Thursday, 16 February, 2006


Food poisoning may become a thing of the past, if commercial kitchens link their appliances to the internet, a research group from Information Society Technologies (IST).

Unique technology developed recently in Europe for the kitchen environment also promises to reduce the risk of fire and to slash maintenance costs.

"The idea of remotely monitoring and controlling catering equipment over the internet isn't new," says Stephen Read, coordinator of the IST project I'MOK. "But nobody succeeded in doing it. Our plug-and-play software and hardware is a major step forward, with the potential to reduce cases of food poisoning in the European Union by more than 113,000 annually."

The nine partners from Belgium, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom came up with a system to link each kitchen appliance to a LAN (local area network) or WAN (wide area network) control station, which is connected to the internet.

"A kitchen appliance with an RJ45 connection can be plugged into the Net. Few appliances have this, but manufacturers of chillers, fridges and fryers are increasingly adding this connection as well as PC boards to future-proof equipment," says Read.

The project tested both hardwired and wirelessly-networked connections to the internet. Both have disadvantages. Hardwiring an old kitchen is disruptive and time-consuming. Wireless connections with microwave technology in kitchens must be used with care, to avoid interference with other appliances.

According to Read, the project's case studies proved the feasibility of placing special sensors on appliances and monitoring them over the Internet. "This technology is perfect for detecting fires, which are common in food establishments," he says. "Another problem faced by fast-food outlets in particular is maintaining food at a constant temperature. Appliance doors are often accidentally left open or opened too frequently."

When a problem is detected, the system alerts kitchen managers by a sending them a text (SMS) or email message. If that person cannot be reached, the software will try someone else in the chain of responsibility. The system can work with anything from a single appliance in café to thousands of machines owned by a large company.

"Our main development was the software," says Read. "It offers human interaction with appliances and an interface for pressure and temperature sensors. Parameters like these can be monitored at a computer centre or manager's office, with the system showing results for every outlet."

The I'MOK system also helps with preventive maintenance. It builds up a history for each appliance, not unlike a car's log book. For example, it may recommend replacing a fridge after 90,000 hours of use, rather than waiting for it to fail, as happens today. Or it could put a machine that is not in use into sleep mode. Monitoring and maintenance of this kind will inevitably bring energy savings for caterers.

The two-month case studies involved an ice machine, fridge and microwave oven in a real commercial kitchen.

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