How AI and digital help us innovate faster and smarter

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As consumer expectations of our products and brands continue to evolve, we’re working to meet their demands against a backdrop of supply chain disruption, cost inflation and the impact of an escalating climate crisis.

Digitalisation allows us to respond to all these challenges by unlocking radical new levels of collaboration, capability and consumer centricity.

Unilever R&D teams have been innovating for over 100 years to create superior brands and products. Today, our experts are keeping us at the forefront of that process by applying the latest digital technologies to our ‘discover–design–deploy’ approach.

Changing how we discover

We’re discovering new ingredients and new science in a way that was never imaginable before digital.

We’re making huge discoveries about human biology and how the body interacts with our microbiome which is only possible because of access to large-scale data, machine learning and high-performance computing, making connections the human brain would never even be able to achieve by itself.

We’re on the cusp of industrialising biotechnology together with our partners to commercialise plant-based, sustainable palm oil alternatives for use in everyday cleaning and personal care products.

And bringing together the very best in technology, data and people, we’re identifying and predicting consumer trends before they even happen.

Progressing how we design

To turn people’s needs into sustainable, cutting-edge innovations, we map, model and experiment virtually, designing and simulating process flows before these innovations go on to be manufactured at scale in our factories globally.

This way of designing products ‘in-silico’ (using computational models) allows us to understand the effect and interaction of molecular compounds – to determine how our formulations evolve, react and even biodegrade – faster and more effectively than ever before with virtual simulations.

Thanks to in-silico, we can test millions of recipe combinations in seconds which helps us design products to suit regional taste preferences. With Hellmann’s, for example, we make gravy and coronation variants of our mayonnaise for the UK market, and sriracha and lime sauces for US consumers.

It’s also at the heart of our work on non-animal testing. We don’t agree that animal testing is necessary to assure the safety of ourproducts or the ingredients in them, and support calls for a worldwide animal testing ban on cosmetics by 2023, working with government authorities, NGOs and our suppliers across the world to increase the use of non-animal approaches for regulatory compliance purposes. For example, using AI, we can predict the response of the biological process when the skin is exposed to certain chemicals or ingredients.

Transforming how we deploy

We’re combining R&D and Supply Chain data with manufacturing simulations to optimise how we deploy our products to 3.4 billion daily consumers worldwide through our global supplier base and manufacturing presence. Being able to respond to real-time trends and market changes more quickly, we can make our innovations more effective and desirable, scaling them faster than ever before.

That said, it’s not enough just to design better-performing products. We need to innovate in a responsible, future-fit and sustainable way to keep on serving the needs of our consumers while protecting the planet for future generations of consumers.

As Alberto Prado, Unilever R&D’s Head of Digital & Partnerships, says: “I firmly believe that science and technology will play a central role in helping innovate for a better future. The combination of digital and leading-edge science is empowering our teams to progress their fields not by years, but by decades.”

Improving operational efficiency

We’re using AI to help identify alternative ingredients that can strengthen the resilience of our supply chain, making our formulations more sustainable and cost-efficient, and simplifying them by reducing the number of ingredients without impacting a product’s quality or effectiveness.

By optimising our design and manufacturing processes through virtual simulations, automated workflows and data-led decision making, we’re unleashing new levels of efficiency in our operations which is in turn freeing up our experts to focus on delivering impactful innovations.

“We have been scaling the use of digitaltechnologies to work smarter for years,” says Alberto. “The game-changing digital tools we use today strengthen our insights and capabilities to power next-level innovation, product reformulations, scientific discovery and portfolio simplification. And we have just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

“Digital is helping us become much more effective at satisfying the needs of consumers, but also those of the planet by creating increasingly sustainable products.”

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