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Yoghurt producer has automation on its mind

15 July 2019

A family-owned Rochdale-based dairy company is currently experiencing a period of growth which has resulted in the need to invest more than £3.5 million in a new plant to ensure it continues to meet demand. Suzanne Gill reports. 

The recent investment by Lancashire Farm into its 70,000 ft/sq yoghurt production plant will increase the amount of milk it can process by 100%. 

The company started out in 1984 when the current owner, Ghulam & Azhar Zouq, opened a market stall in Rochdale selling vegetables and yoghurt. The yoghurt proved so popular he quickly made the decision to move his focus to yoghurt production instead. The business developed quickly on the back of relationships with independent retailers and the food service sector.  In 2009 the business won its first major customer, which resulted in a significant increase in production volumes.  Since then the company has continued to grow – from having 20 staff to employing more than 200 people today. “Our turnover has also grown ten-fold and we now supply most supermarkets in the UK,” said Sarfaraz Akram, chief operating officer at Lancashire Farm.

To what does the company attribute its growth? “Contracts with new retailers have been a big driver in our growth in addition to increased distribution, better breadth and more products being stocked in more supermarkets,” said Akram. “We have gone from being a regional player in selected stores to becoming a national player which we are looking to build on further.  There is still a lot more that we could do and this is why we need to continue to invest in our production line technology.

“While we, like all food manufacturers, have been challenged by Brexit we do anticipate long-term opportunity. If we face a no-deal Brexit we will need to quickly adapt to numerous changes in food safety and standards which has been challenging. However, on the plus-side we have already been approached by retailers looking to replace products currently sourced from Europe.” 

Ethical qualities
In 2018 the company demonstrated its ethical qualities by moving to the sole use of free-range milk in its products. “We pay a premium for this but we believe animal welfare is important, not only to Lancashire Farm Dairies as a business but also to consumers. We employ a dedicated liquid supply chain manager to act as an interface between us and our local suppliers to ensure we always get the best quality raw material for our yoghurt. 

“The recent investment in new equipment at the facility included two new raw milk holding silos that can hold 140,000l each. We have added new fermentation tanks to increase our ability to produce yoghurt and have added new filling lines too.

“We also retrofitted a new state-of-the-art four-channel clean-in-place (CIP) system which has helped us to reduce the amount of chemicals, water and energy we use,” said Akram. “We took the opportunity to create more efficient routes around the plant for the CIP system – traditionally we have simply retrofitted plant to keep up with growth. With this installation we took a more strategic approach, planning further ahead to ensure the system is flexible enough to meet our future requirements too.” 

New CIP solution
The four-channel CIP system offers greater flexibility in cleaning up to four parts of the plant simultaneously. Each channel is further split to clean routing pipe work, incubator tanks, valves and pumps associated with finished products. Each CIP has its own validated ‘recipe’ staged wash cycle and can be traced back in time, date, recipe or route selection. The new CIP system also offers better control and traceability of chemical usage and it has significantly reduced water usage at the facility as CIP water is now recycled for use elsewhere in the plant. 

Eddie Ralph, director at PVSL, who designed and installed the Lancashire Farm system, explains further: “The system utilises a SCADA system which captures all the engineering data and places it into a database which then presents it in a readable format.  The format is in the form of a graph giving time and date traceability of CIP process flows, detergent strength and temperatures for each stage of the CIP. This can be modelled against a master validated CIP trace which is dedicated for that set route which is selected by means of a ‘recipe’.  The system will hold and wait for validated flows, temperatures etc to be at setpoints before proceeding with the CIP ensuring every CIP meets the master as a minimum.”
 
The system includes inline monitoring to cover the key elements of required CIP validation of flow, temperature, chemical strength and final rinsing. Temperature monitoring of feed and return lines validate circuit temperatures while conductivity of detergent tank and CIP return detergent strengths validate circuit chemical strengths and exposure.

According to Ralph, the main CIP project challenge was to run both existing CIP plants together with the new plant whilst maintaining autonomy. He said: “The new CIP plant initially serviced new equipment only but was progressively engaged into existing plant as the project moved onto product lines feeding the new and existing plant.”

Filling lines
To handle the increased production capabilities presented by the new tanks the company also needed to invest in more filling lines and it has taken the opportunity to automate this task, where possible. The company has also added to its existing product range with new SKU – screw-top pouches. This move has been a great success and the company is already considering extending this offering.

Despite its recent activities, Lancashire Farm is not content to rest on its laurels just yet, as it believes there is still room to grow. “We are now looking at new varieties and strains of yoghurt to help keep the business moving forward,’ said Akram.  

Automation ambitions
“Our current trajectory does make the need for more automation clear,” said Akram. “Over time it is our intention to move to more highly skilled jobs for our workers as the business expands. Our newest filling line, for example, is much more automated and will significantly increase our output for the same level of labour.  We are also giving greater consideration to the use of robotics and automated end-of-line solutions which for us is currently still a mostly manual process. While we do have islands of automation throughout the process today we need to start linking these islands together and an important step for us is the use of greater end-of-line automation. Hopefully this will give us the opportunity to upskill our existing staff and allowing us to keep our headcount constant, while increasing output volumes.”  

The company regularly talks to its suppliers and is keen to stay informed about relevant technology developments. “We are always open to new ideas and innovations but, of course they must offer us a good return-on-investment and must offer flexibility to ensure that we do not end up locked into a process. Going forward we are determined to ensure we have the agility to allow us to continue to innovate and to be quickly adapt to fast changing consumer demands,” concludes Akram.


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