Illustration by Oscar Matamora

Aerospace engineers already know digital twins are great, and now airline caterers are acquiring a taste for them, too.

IATA has revealed in an environment briefing that, in 2018, airlines generated an estimated 6.7 million metric tons of trash (0.003 percent of global waste, according to The World Bank). Around 20 percent of airline trash is untouched food and drink, and customs guidelines prevent repurposing the items. Improving the in-flight catering pipeline is crucial for reducing waste, and a new solution for optimizing these processes is gaining traction: Digital twin technology simulates systems or processes in a virtual environment, and aerospace engineers have used them for years for fleet management and to model more efficient aircraft. Now, the technology is headed off of the tarmac and into the kitchen.

Singapore-based in-flight caterer SATS recently announced a partnership with French virtual-solutions company Dassault Systèmes. Together, they are implementing a 3-D digital twin for in-flight meal prep – what they call a “virtual kitchen,” which aims to make pre-flight meal prep as efficient as possible.

To build digital twins, sensors are used to relay data from real-life scenarios to a 3-D replica. SATS’ virtual kitchen is hosted on Dassault’s 3DEXPERIENCE cloud platform, which analyzes manufacturing processes in its large-batch food production facility. The technology could optimize different aspects of food production, like ingredient usage and energy consumption, without wasting real-world resources. It even serves as a virtual meeting place where employees share ideas about how to ramp up food production and increase options for airlines and passengers.

“With the virtual kitchen, SATS is able to test out and simulate in-flight catering operations when an order from an airline comes in for certain types of customized meals, before actual production,” says Masaki Konno, managing director, Asia Pacific South, Dassault Systèmes. “This allows SATS to ensure adherence to the highest quality and safety standards of its in-flight meals.”

In addition to operational gains, the virtual kitchen may mean expanded menus for passengers, too. “One way to improve the in-flight customer experience is to offer a greater choice of in-flight meals in terms of taste, dietary preferences and nutritional value,” says Konno. “By helping airline companies in this area, the technological capabilities of the virtual kitchen have a positive impact on both SATS’ customers and airline passengers alike.”

SATS is planning to use the data gathered from the virtual kitchen to map out the benefits of fully automated food production, the next step in efficient in-flight catering. A future where robots start prepping your meal at check-in is closer than you might think.

“Real Food, Virtual Kitchens” was originally published in the 9.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.