Food and drink makers, with the support of Made Smarter, are using technology and digital skills to navigate the major challenges of coronavirus, Brexit, and climate change.

The Made Smarter Adoption Programme in the North West, a collaboration between UK government and industry designed to support the increased use of digital technologies, has worked with dozens of SMEs across the entire supply chain from farm to fork to capitalise on the multitude of benefits that digitalisation offers.

These include: salad, fruit and potato growers; cheese and yogurt makers; bakers, confectioners, and desert manufacturers; breweries; health and nutrition producers; as well as businesses making baby food, black pudding, flavourings, and pet food.

Through impartial expert technology advice and match funding on technology projects, digital transformation workshops to help manufacturers take their first steps, a leadership programme, digital technology internships, and skills development, it is helping businesses in the sector increase productivity, achieve sustainable growth, and create new high value jobs.

Digital transformation has also proven to be critical to food and drink manufacturers of all sizes over the last 18 months, with the combined impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit, and the drive towards net zero.

Friars, a chocolatier, based in Keswick, worked with Made Smarter to identify technology to overcome its challenges and unlock a whole host of opportunities to keep pace with a fast moving industry.

Michael Webster, Managing Director, said: “Our ambition is to become one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of quality chocolates, but in order to do this we need to look to technology to enable us to scale up our operation while producing the highest quality possible.

“Made Smarter’s advice through the digital transformation workshop gave us a digital roadmap which helps us grow progressively and sustainably, avoiding the wasted time, effort and money that comes from adopting technologies in a disparate way.

“The further support from the programme has accelerated and de-risked our investment in process automation technology which will take the brakes off our growth plans and transform our business. The retail sector is going through an uncertain time, so we need to secure our future. Made Smarter has given us real confidence that our approach is the right one.”

Nutree Life, a manufacturer of vegan and free-from protein bars, based in Burscough, experienced a sudden upsurge of order at the beginning of the first pandemic lockdown. But having adopted a bespoke solution to upgrade their production line earlier in the year, with support from Made Smarter, they were primed to fulfil this demand through high volume, high speed and more precise production.

The success accelerated Nutree Life’s digitalisation plans to upgrade a second production line with the same advanced technology and linking the entire system to harness more data to improve performance.
The business is now on target to almost quadruple its turnover and has doubled its workforce.

Patrick said: “With other food producers cutting ranges to focus on volume, customers are looking for alternatives, which has created an opportunity for us. There is no doubt that without investing when we did, in the way that we did, with the help from Made Smarter, we would not be able to cope with this unprecedented increase in demand.

“When we approached Made Smarter for help with upgrading our production process, I never imagined that we’d achieve so much so fast. Made Smarter made us think bigger and smarter, encouraging us to capture manufacturing data as a way of improving the accuracy and consistency of the product. It has given us the platform and the confidence to take that next step.”

Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses, based in Preston, has been wrestling with supply chain disruption during the pandemic.

Matthew Hall, Commercial Director, said investing in software systems enabled the business to be more flexible and agile.

“As an artisan producer we are about innovation, it’s in our DNA,” he said. “That includes the manufacturing process which can be labour intensive but adds value to that finished product, but then there are other auxiliary processes which are labour intensive but don’t add value.

“Working with Made Smarter we identified the solution lay with planning and systems, and we looked to increase and integrate that robust process control across our departments. That enabled greater transparency of information and allowed us to be more agile, to have that information at our fingertips and be able to react to changing customer demands.”

Some food and drink manufacturers have benefited from the Made Smarter Leadership Programme, designed to equip SME managers and directors with the strategic view and the skills needed to successfully pursue smarter manufacturing.

Jason Hill, Head of Production at Eden River Brew Company, based in Penrith, used his experience of the eight-month programme to develop ideas to improve his stock control system.

He said: “The leadership programme was extremely helpful providing a number of tools and methods which have been really useful in the business.”

These success stories illustrate the positive impact that digitalisation can have on a sector worth £3.3bn in the North West and that employs more than 45,000 people*.

Made Smarter, which has supported hundreds of businesses to deliver an additional £176 million in gross value added, is now keen to reach more SMEs across the entire food and drink supply chain and has produced a free guide to help demystify digitalisation and drive technology adoption.

The downloadable document includes topics such as how to get started with digital technologies, infrastructure management, increasing control, reducing waste and boosting sustainability, enhancing traceability, and how to hit new trends.

Alain Dilworth, North West Adoption Programme Manager at Made Smarter, said: “While the North West is home to some of the food industry’s biggest names such as Nestle, Heinz, and Kellogg’s, it is also brimming with innovative small and medium sized enterprises across the entire supply chain, working hard to ensure we continue to enjoy our favourite food and drink from farm to fork.

“The triple challenge of the pandemic, Brexit and the net zero agenda, have created a perfect storm for the food and drink industry, impacting SMEs more than most. But despite these pressures, many of these businesses have shown resilience and determination to keep up with the fast moving industry and are working with Made Smarter on their digital transformation.

“From using robotics and process control technologies to improve sustainability and automating data collection points to create a line of traceability, technologies are not only helping producers overcome challenges, but also unlock a whole host of opportunities.

“To help demystify digitalisation and help SMEs to their first step, we have produced some crucial guidance as well as explained why implementing digital tools is such a priority in this sector.”