How AI helps deliver ketchup around the world

By Dayna Sargen

Learn more about the IBM Garage

Ketchup, at first glance, seems distinctly American—a condiment that is perfectly matched with fast food and Fourth of July barbecues. And Americans eat ketchup with pretty much everything—French fries, breakfast burritos, mac and cheese, and even ice cream—squirting it on an average of 9.74 meals a week.

But ketchup, or “catsup,” is consumed with meals around the world, from Germany to Japan. And Europe actually exports the most ketchup, with 60 percent of the global trade.

“The irony is that this ubiquitous condiment is anything but American in its origins or in those nationalities that love it the most,” said Ken Albala, Professor of History, University of the Pacific. “As a historian of food, I see it as truly a global product, its origins shaped by centuries of trade. And different cultures have adopted a wide variety of surprising uses for the condiment we know as ketchup today.”

With such a surprising global demand, keeping our homes and restaurants stocked with ketchup is no easy feat. How do iconic food brands like Kraft Heinz keep it from being sold out? Kraft Heinz sells a staggering 11 billion packets of ketchup a year, a number that would strain any supply chain. Besides ketchup, Kraft has hundreds of products that are staples in households around the world. They need to ensure quality products reach customers at the right place and time—a major challenge.

“We have analytical brains that constantly say, ‘go check this, go check that.’ We want to make sure we know where to place our products at all times,” said Jorge Balestra, Director of IT-COE Analytics Solutions at The Kraft Heinz Company.

That’s where AI comes in.

AI can help supply chain managers do a better job of keeping on top of unstructured information — hyper-local weather patterns, local events, traffic patterns, social media buzz — that are indicators of customer behavior and demand.

“Disruptions happen all the time. Weather is one. Or you might have a strike at the dock at a port that stops goods from arriving,” said Mark S. Yourek, an IBM solutions leader in the global consumer industry. “AI-enabled supply chains can tap into the data about all of those things, interpret them, and advise you on how to adjust to keep your supply chain running as efficiently as possible.”

To harness the power of their data, Kraft reached out to IBM. They co-created a state-of-the-art algorithm, LEGO, to ensure products were stocked in kitchens.

Powered by AI, LEGO was able to take all of Kraft’s field data and provide valuable insights for individual field sales representatives in real-time, such as notifying them when products were running low. The accelerated communications ultimately helped Kraft distribute each product more efficiently to stores and restaurants around the world.

They were able to accomplish this in part through a unique collaboration made possible by the IBM Garage

In the IBM Garage, a methodology in which IBM and clients co-create new ideas side-by-side, Kraft was able to directly go from ideation to prototyping and implementation by creating a mini start-up inside the company.

“The IBM Garage is like an innovation think tank where we’re able to bring the speed of a start-up at the scale of an enterprise,” said Arun Abraham, Lead Partner at IBM.

Besides LEGO, Kraft is launching other transformation projects with the help of the IBM Garage, like the different functions in supply chain (i.e. logistics and manufacturing), sales and marketing – and even AI enabled flavor prediction.

“I would like the garage to expand into R&D. We might even start trying to use data powered by AI to predict what people might like eating in the future,” said Abraham.

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