Factory of the Year shows future of food production

- Last updated on GMT

A food plant that saved £10.4 million over four years by
revolutionising its business philosophy has been named as the UK's
Factory of the Year. Anthony Fletcher finds out how this
impressive feat was achieved.

Unilever's food factory Lowestoft, the largest frozen food plant in Europe employing 950 staff, was presented with the trophy at the Best Factory Awards ceremony run by Cranfield School of Management last week.

The company also scooped the prizes for the Best Household and General Products Plant and the Best Factory in the East of England after embarking on a four-year world-class manufacturing plan that has resulted in it beating Unilever's internal efficiency targets by 22 per cent.

"I am absolutely delighted,"​ plant general manager Graham Cooke told FoodProductionDaily.com. "I now know what it is like to be on the winning team at the FA cup final."

The Lowestoft plant is in fact more than just one factory - it is in effect a site containing four factories that produces all of Birds Eye's red meat, poultry, frozen vegetable and potato products. There are 14 different product lines, and Cooke's objective from the very start has been to achieve full productivity, cut out loss and become the safest food plant in Europe.

The factory is now well on its way to achieving these objectives.

"Since we initiated our Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) programme in 1998, we have received a Unilever Excellence Award, a Consistency Award and a Special Award on the basis of achieving zero loss,"​ said Cooke. We look to achieve absolute perfection."

Investing in the workforce has been a key factor. Instead of an 'us and them' mentality, Cooke has ensured that management works in partnership with the unions, and that staff are as highly trained as possible. Over the last few years, 1,500 externally accredited qualifications have been issued.

"We have upskilled to a situation where were instead of having an 'I drive, you fix' mentality, we have an 'I drive, I fix, you improve' mentality. This is about improving the line, not just fixing it when something goes wrong."

As a result, operational efficiency currently stands at 84 per cent. According to Cooke, an impressive record at an equivalent factory would be around 75 per cent. The factory has also beaten its cost targets for the last four years, saving Unilever £10.5 million.

The factory has also invested in automated equipment. New machinery enables the firm to make 110 different types of food packages to meet the demands of large customers such as the Asda and Tesco supermarkets.

The company has also invested in ultra-violet recognition equipment that follows the progress of individual peas on the production line and can recognise three million different colours.

Safety is another key indicator of the factory's achievements. Two years ago, the plant was awarded a Unilever gold award for improving its safety record by 90 per cent over 6 years.

"We have achieved one million hours without an accident, and we are well on our way to passing our second million hours without an accident."​ The plant has recently been nominated for Unilever's​ global safety award.

The Cranfield award highlights not only how far Unilever's Lowestoft factory has come, but how much room for improvement there is in food production. This plant is at the cutting edge, and as the awards suggest, is fast becoming a model of how a modern food plant should be run.

"Our mission statement was to become the best food factory in Europe, and now we have been acknowledged as the best factory in the UK,"​ said Cooke. "The question for us now is, do we drop the word 'food' or 'Europe' from our mission statement?"

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