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Automating to keep up with demand

17 April 2017

Suzanne Gill visited the Chichester factory of award-winning British chocolate producer, Montezuma’s, to find out how the company is managing to keep up with ever-increasing demands for its chocolate products. 

Founded in 2000 by Helen and Simon Pattinson, almost by accident, Montezuma’s now produces over 20 different varieties of its luxury chocolate bars as well as chocolate gifts and hand-made truffles. The Pattinsons started out with the intention of simply running a chocolate shop in Brighton but, just before the shop opened, their supplier went into administration, and they had no chocolate to sell… so they made the decision to start making their own!

Following extended contracts with customers such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, demand for its products increased, which resulted in the company needing to run its production lines 24-hours every day. However, this was not a sustainable long-term solution, and, with demand threatening to outstrip the plant’s production capabilities, it became clear that a better solution was needed. 

Montezuma’s takes great pride in its handmade products, with items like its truffles being individually hand-decorated. “We believe it is the fact that they are hand-made that gives our truffles their unique characteristics and we don’t want to change this, even though it is a time-consuming task. Instead we wanted to introduce automated solutions where we felt it would not have an effect on the look or quality of the finished product,” said Wesley Cole, operations manager at Montezuma’s.

Looking at the options
“We looked into available options to extend the production capabilities for the 100g chocolate tablets and finally specified a Knobel continuous depositor line with the addition of a specially designed and customised 90m cooling tunnel,” explained Cole. “We did look at other potential depositors, but have used Knobel equipment elsewhere in the plant, and have always been pleased with the equipment quality and the service received from the company. Our production staff are also comfortable with using Knobel equipment and were able to transfer their knowledge of working with other Knobel equipment to the new line.” 

From specification of the new depositer line to installation, late in 2016, there was a gap of around nine months. The equipment and the tunnel cooler needed to be designed to fit Montezuma’s specific requirements and the company also needed to undertake electrical and structural changes to the building before the line could be installed.

According to Cole the next step for the company is to look at extending the upstream and downstream processes, too, to keep up with the increased output from the new depositor line. “Our existing chocolate melting capability will struggle to keep up with the new line’s output when we get up to full speed,” said Cole. “We will be able to double our current tablet production in a single day shift, so we do need to invest in other areas of production to make sure it keeps up.” 

The company has already made a start on this and has recently purchased an automated carton stacker to keep pace with the increased number of tablets. The carton stacker, supplied by T. Freemantle, addresses this need. “Previously, to deal with the peaks and troughs of demand we would have to employ agency workers to pack chocolate tablets into tuck-end cartons and this was very costly,” explained Cole.  The new carton stacker has automated the process, moving from tuck-end to glue-end cartons, which, in addition to increasing packing speed, has reduced labour requirements and ensures that the packs are tamper-evident without the need for application of self-adhesive tape.

Cole went on to explain how the new production line has also required a change in mindset around production planning. “The new depositer is designed for long product runs, so we need to plan production differently,” he said. “Switching from one product to another creates product waste during line cleaning as any chocolate still in the pipes will be lost. Ideally we are aiming at eight-hour production runs, producing 1,000s of 100g tablets in each run.”

Taking well-earned rest
Since installing the new depositer, the existing equipment has taken a well-earned rest and is currently undergoing servicing and maintenance. “Once it is back up and running we will be able to double our output of tablets, while also reducing labour costs as there will be less need for costly night shift production,” said Cole.

“Managers and supervisors were spread very thinly when we needed to run 24-hour shifts. I think it is fair to say that the majority of production problems were occurring during the night shift, when there were less supervisors working. So, working less shifts also helps ensure that we have better continuity of line management and supervision as all our resources are on hand to identify and deal with problems more quickly. It will also give us the opportunity to undertake planned maintenance on machines in the future to help us avoid any unplanned stoppages due to equipment failure.”

We leave the final word to Simon Pattinson, co-founder of Montezuma’s, who said: “The decision to install the new line, which employs state-of-the-art automation technology, has resulted in us being able to make better products in larger quantities. It will allow us to increase output from around 350 tonnes to 800 tonnes per year.” 

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