Recently we spoke with Mike Hill, Co-founder of One Planet Pizza, one of the companies participating in the COTEMACO SME Support Programme. Mike and his team are well on their way to increasing sales across Europe, having already chosen semi-automated solutions for their highly manual pizza assembly line, with the help of the University of Lincoln’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing.
How did you hear about the COTEMACO SME Support programme?
Our Food Safety Consultant introduced us to the programme as they were advising us on the best strategy to improve our Food Safety Accreditation. It sounded like the perfect opportunity for us, as we were looking into how we could increase productivity at our production unit based just outside Norwich. We have been making our pizzas totally by hand and knew we could be a lot more efficient with some automation, although we were not at all familiar with the options out there – it has been a steep learning curve!
What were the main challenges you hoped to solve?
We wanted to improve our production capacity but also our efficiency and productivity. Our pizza assembly has been very labour intensive and relatively slow - we make about 2000 pizzas a week but our goal is to double that. Until very recently, our pizza was laid out on the work table, and the staff wandered around it as they add the sauce, the toppings and the cheese. Then we manually wrapped them in cling film and put them in the box - it couldn't be much more manual than that!
Which solutions did you consider?
Solutions included automating or semi-automating different aspects of the production process, right through from laying the bases out to the final wrapping and boxing. We were considering cobots and although we may decide to integrate them in the future, semi-automated solutions seemed like a more realistic and affordable first step. We’ve purchased 5 bits of kit which will make a huge difference to our labour costs and our capacity.
Which equipment have you chosen to integrate into your production line?
At the beginning of the production line, we’ve integrated (1) a sauce depositor attached to (2) a short conveyor belt that leads the pizza to (3) a “cheese waterfall”, which then goes into (4) a semi-manual shrinkwrap machine and finally (5) a checkweigher with metal detection. The new shrinkwrap machine will be particularly effective. Manually wrapping our pizzas has been taking up around 25% of the total production time. We’ve been sliding one pizza tray underneath the bottom of the pizza, placing another on top, wrapping the pizza in cling film, flipping it over, and carefully removing the trays. As we don't have a disk at the bottom to avoid unnecessary packaging, and the toppings are loose on top, it has been quite tricky to wrap the cling film all the way around it. With COTEMACO's help, we've redesigned our kitchen, knocked down a dividing wall and reorganised the production flow. With the new conveyor belt system and simple wrap machine, we've already improved our productivity by 30%.
What do your employees think about this new automation plan?
We’re quite a small team, only 6 of us are working in the production units, and they all know that the business is growing sufficiently enough and our plans for growth and expansion over the next 6 to 12 months involve keeping everyone employed. We are also only semi-automating, and the solutions we’re integrating will free up some staff time so they can focus on quality control and standardization. There will be less moving around also. Our staff have been moving to the pizzas, but now the pizzas will start coming to them. With this change, we are also very conscious of keeping someone in the same position for hours on end, because then the work will become too monotonous. So we will implement a simpler rotation and ensure employees can move around every hour or so.
Are you aware of other companies in your region taking similar steps towards automation?
I think bigger companies in the UK have been pretty good at automating pizza assembly for quite some time now. However looking only at cobots, since it’s a relatively new technology, SMEs may actually find it easier to adopt than much larger companies. It will be trickier and more expensive for a company with a massive factory to then change over to cobots after investing in a big production line with traditional production equipment.
Health & safety is high priority in food manufacturing processes – how will these production line changes impact that?
The changes we are making to our production line will actually enable us to achieve a higher level of food accreditation. This was explained to us by our Food Safety consultant who introduced us to the COTEMACO SME support programme and the huge potential of automated solutions. Right now we have the Safe and Local Supplier Approval (SALSA) accreditation which allows us to sell in small retailers, but we want to take our pizzas across the UK and Europe and being BRC-certified will get us there. That’s the next step for us. We have distributors lined up in Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands who are interested in a thin-crust, lower RRP pizza that we are developing with an NPD company. By improving efficiencies in the production line we'll be able to make these thin-crust pizzas cheaper and roll out a lower-priced pizza range across Europe.
If you work for an SME based in North-West Europe, you too could explore automated solutions like Mike and his team, and be well on your way to increasing your production efficiency.
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