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Ardo: New attitude for new factory

18 February 2011

A £15m investment saw Kent frozen fruit and vegetable expert Ardo UK bring its operations to one site, under the direction of operations manager Jim Everest (pictured). It tells its story at Appetite

Belgian-owned Ardo, according to Simon Baxter, marketing and innovation director, is 'the absolute leader in frozen vegetables, fruit, pasta and rice technology, in terms of freezing it, maintaining quality and re-investing. Ardo is a self-expanding, self-funding business - a refreshing environment to work in, and very family orientated'.

The company, which previously operated from two sites, at Charing and Headcorn, has equipped its new factory in Ashford Road with what it describes as 'state-of-the-art processing and packing equipment' and sits alongside the existing administrative headquarters.

The new processing plant will, Ardo says, double previous potential production capacity and was officially opened by two members of the Haspeslagh family of Ardo UK's parent company, Ardo of Belgium.

A factory visit by Food Processing certainly revealed the impressive nature of the company's new equipment but the most noteworthy aspect of the factory, I thought, was the simple and spacious layout. Staff move around freely and there is plenty of room for the machinery, and indeed the entire process, to 'breathe'.

The man placed in charge of the factory overhaul was Jim Everest, operations director. Jim has a range of experience in engineering and food production environments that includes key roles with Unilever and Campbell's.

He has been involved in culture change such as total preventive maintenance and says his next challenge is the continuing process of implementing the key principles of lean manufacturing to further improve commercial performance.

The most prominent new pieces of equipment come from Motoman, which has supplied Ardo with four NX100 robots. Jim Everest, operations director, who was instrumental in laying out the factory, says enough space has been left for a further two robots should they be needed. ''These robots can pack up to 50,000 tonnes in a five-day operation and we have the capacity to go higher still''.

Jim says there was much debate about whether Ardo should invest in robotics or palletisers. While some in the company said palletisers were a better option, Jim staunchly maintained robots were preferable. ''A robot can go 50,000 working hours without needing to be maintained,'' Jim says. ''A standard palletiser with sprockets and chains, on the other hand, has always got to be maintained. Everybody says I was mad to push for robots but all we're trying to do is put a box on a pallet - and it works!''

Then there was the price aspect. For the service they provide, robots are cheaper and also take up less space than a palletiser. ''A palletiser will always be bigger,'' says Jim. ''You can fit a robot into most applications.''

But while the robots are the biggest eye-catchers in the factory, there are several other pieces of machinery of which Jim is proud. From the super-modern, hygienic Dyson Airblade at the entrance, which is essential for hand drying, to Compere Systems' fully automated pallet control system which provides a detailed simulation of the factory in order to track and trace every ingredient, there is something here for everyone.

Jim says the company has drastically cut the number of forklift trucks - from 22 to only two - in order to reduce the amount of unnecessary movement in the plant. There is a blending drum from PPM Technologies for the fruit and vegetables and a 'corn cob flow-wrap line', which is used to wrap the corn. Further down the line are Yamato and Ishida Europe multihead weighers - Jim says the Ishida weigher is used for fruit while the Yamato product is for vegetables and fruit.

A vertical form-fill bagging machine from CFS Smartpacker is used to bag the products while a Loma Systems metal detector checks for stray contaminants and a Mettler-Toledo checkweigher ensures every bag is the correct weight within a tolerance level. A spiral conveyor from spiralveyor.com takes the bags to the upper level of the factory where in-line printing and case erecting takes place, courtesy of Bortolinkemo.

Back on the process line, the Ishida QX110 tray sealer packs and seals 100 fruit punnets a minute. Lidding a punnet is also an option. ''The choice between the two options is customer driven,'' Jim says when I enquire about the price difference. The next step on the process line is a pre-glued sleever from T-Freemantle while a Domino A200 unit prints the labels on the packs and provides traceability.

For the packing of the punnets into boxes, Ardo uses an Ishida pick-and-place machine, which has been instrumental in reducing the need for labour. ''You have to teach a robot what to do,'' says Jim, ''but once you do, it's a matter of repetition.''

In the storage section of the factory, packaging provided by Sharp Interpack is ubiquitous. The company has been nominated in the FP Awards for its Sharplok+, which is renowned for having cut plastic waste in products packaged for Marks & Spencer.

***

Jim Everest, operations director, says Ardo is a cut above the competition owing to its technical capability and its range of value-added products and services. ‘’With our distribution and third-party storage, we offer a supermarket the full package. We're like a one-stop shop. We have factories all over Europe so we can meet this requirement. There's a lot of enthusiasm so we can focus on simplicity and speed which gets us ahead of competitors.’’

With respect to new product development, Simon Baxter says: ''Ardo has many channels to deal with NPD as we focus on retail foodservice and industrial ingredients. If you look at the structure in the UK, for instance, we've got two people managing it: an innovation manager and a product improvement manager. One looks at the needs of the customer and the other looks inward at the capabilities of the company.

‘’We also have a central management area across the Group called the Ardo Co-ordination Centre and where there are common functions such as technical and marketing or sales, we have somebody who can help us manage that process. This can be a great help with, for instance, language barriers between our different branches in different countries. We have three ways to approach innovations: We'll try to develop with the customer, telling them what they need, and then another branch where the Group has produced a product we think will sell in the UK.

''There's been a lot of resistance to product development over the past 12-18 months, purely because people have been focusing on trying to take that cost out of their business. But it's starting to come back now, which is really good news because our business is over 90% based on commodities so there are very thin margins. Therefore the place we can make extra money is product development so what we want to do now is stride into the new factory and give Jim some challenges. Our objective is for 10% of sales turnover to be new product development.’’

‘’What gives us an advantage in terms of experience,’’ adds Jim, ‘’is the people working in that area are former chefs - they're good idea generators.’’

Lean manufacturing is important to Ardo, as Jim explains. ''Last year, we set off with a pilot plant before building our new factory by running a programme for LM. The team was cross-functional and included factory employees and people from other departments who support around the factory. But it’s not just about looking at your factory - the supply chain is crucial.’’

On waste management Jim says: ‘’With respect to cardboard, we bail the waste on-site and recycle directly to the mills so there’s no middleman. We also recycle our polythene. From a revenue point-of-view we ask ourselves how can we optimise the recycling of that material. Our food waste is used as co-product – we’re looking at options such as biofuel or composting. We’re talking to a company in Essex, recommended by Tesco, which is interested in taking care of that for us.

‘’You’ve got to deal with this waste in some way, at minimal cost or at no cost if possible so we feed it to farm animals at no cost. A local farmer picks it up and delivers it to his farm where it is consumed. Job done. We’re looking at all our options - biofuel is a good option but there is a cost attached. We need to know how to minimise it.’’


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