Biscuit purism

There’s science behind the way the cookie crumbles finds Jane Gray as she explores Burton’s Biscuits latest technology investments.

Burtons Biscuit Company is the only volume food manufacturer to exclusively manufacturer biscuits in the UK. It’s a focus the company believes is integral to its recent growth and the popularity of its ‘power brands’ – Maryland Cookies, Wagon Wheels and Dodgers, not to mention Cadbury’s entire range of Chocolate biscuits for which Burton’s holds the global licence.

“The focused product range really lets us explore the technology of making biscuits,” says Neil Grocock, the company’s chief supply chain officer as he talks me through the latest tranche of a £25m investment plan in production capability, new product development and capacity expansion.

And for those readers who might doubt that there’s much technology behind baking the humble tea accompaniment, a trip to one of Burton’s three UK plants, will swiftly set you right.

Infrared cameras quantify the moisture content of Burton's Biscuits' Jammie Dodgers.

This year Burton’s has committed £13.5m to the introduction of high tech automation and monitoring systems which will help it perfect manufacturing and reduce waste, moving ever closer to the holy grail of producing 100% perfect biscuits for sale in an increasingly diverse international marketplace. Burton’s currently exports around 15% of what it makes in the UK, to destinations as far flung as Australia, and it is looking the increase that percentage.

Burton’s Llantarnam factory in South Wales is the proving ground for much of the technology to be implemented. The most recent investment is an £800,000 control room which links to new automated monitoring systems on the shop floor. The system uses cameras, heat sensors and infra red to track the size, colour, moisture content and temperature of biscuits in production in real time. Mr Grocock says he believes the application is the first of its type in the biscuit making industry.

Measurements are snapped every eight rows of biscuit produced – which when you are producing 1.85 tonnes of Wagon Wheels an hour, and similar quantities across a multitude of concurrently running lines for branded and own label biscuits – equates to a huge quantity of data.

The control room is manned by eight operatives who have been moved from the shop floor and trained – with an additional expense of around £100,000 – to use the equipment with confidence and efficiency. This training process has taken around four months.

Shop floor operatives and technicians can communicate with the control room and see the

The control room at Burton's Biscuits plant in South Wales displays production data by line and product specification in real time.

data displayed in the flat screen monitor-lined biscuit nerve centre via ruggedized tablet PCs. “And managers can also log into the control room data remotely at any time, supporting real time responsiveness to, for instance, a malfunction in one of the oven burners or the need to recalibrate heat sensors. Going forward the data captured here will also link into maintenance scheduling systems,” explains Grocock.

The control room technology was provided by Dutch industrial automation provider Omron and local integration partner Platinum. Other plant investments at Llantarnam include automated packing and palletising equipment from Bradman Lake and the Blackpool plant has just installed new kit to support the launch of a novel range of ‘filled’ biscuits with cream filling injected into soft cookies rather than being sandwiched. More new kit will come online behind the launch of other products – like mini Wagon Wheels.

Demand for such new innovations is hard to keep up with, but extremely important for Burton’s at a time when the global sweet biscuit market is growing. It expanded by 20% between 2005 and 2010 and similar growth is expected between 2010 and 2015. Burton’s saw 9% profit growth in 2012.

Innovation in products and packaging is also important for CSR and customer relationships says Grocock as he explains how keeping products and packaging fresh and interesting is crucial in maintaining Burton’s unusually positive partnerships with UK supermarkets.

In short, Burton’s investments show making biscuits is big business and no piece of cake.