Inside the factory: AG Barr’s soft drinks

Posted on 15 May 2019 by Maddy White

AG Barr puts the fizz and fun in its soft drinks. It makes the secret recipe to Scotland’s other national drink, IRN-BRU. We visited its Milton Keynes factory to learn how it has quenched the nation’s thirst for almost 150 years.

Soft drinks are big business. The industry is worth £16bn to Britain, and on average 205 litres of the stuff is consumed per person every year in the UK, according to the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA).

A FTSE 250 company. AG Barr (plc) is a soft drinks manufacturer established in 1875 and operates major production sites in Milton Keynes and Cumbernauld, Scotland.

It makes leading brands including IRN-BRU, Rubicon, Strathmore water and the Barr range. The company had a turnover of £277m last year, with an ambition to hit £500m by 2022.

Lean from the start. The Milton Keynes site opened in 2013. Factory manager, Trevor Newman says,“Over the years it has grown from the one can line able to fill 120,000 cans a minute (below), to the addition of four Tetra Pak lines and a PET line that fills 500ml to 2L bottles.

“If you look at the size and scale of the plant, the plan was always to grow and there is plenty of available space to do that.”

Twenty-five million cases a year. The production site makes millions of litres of fizzy pop every week, and (as of the day before my visit – 13 May) runs part of its operation 24/7.

People are important. Factory manager, Trevor Newman began his manufacturing career as a graduate in the automotive industry before moving to Carlsberg. He then worked for Coca-Cola for 14 years and was trained in manufacturing operations management.

Newman progressed to run Coca-Cola’s Sidcup factory and then its Wakefield site, the biggest soft drinks plant in Europe. Last October he joined AG Barr.

The operation is seamless. Cans, bottles and cartons are filled rapidly, packaged, cased and sent through to the warehouse automatically. It is important for the site to access the data collected from these processes, as the potential for waste is huge.

If the high-speed can line is placing the labels in the wrong position even slightly, that could mean 2,000 cans wasted every minute. Below, Rubicon cartons are packaged at pace.

Quality is crucial. Per one million products, the number of complaints sits impressively at just over one at AG Barr. To ensure the quality of the hundreds of thousands of products made each day, as well as manually checking bottles, the team at Milton Keynes also utilises data.

“We measure the quality of our products every day and that is essential. Our quality checks include checking taste and packaging by sampling products off of the line every half an hour,” Newman says.

“We have line control systems in place and we get accurate data reports second by second. There is a lot of data coming from our ERP system and our production planning system.”

Robots do repetitive tasks. The factory has many robots scattered across its floor, which means the workforce can focus on more engaging and value-added tasks. Below, the robots are moving cases of plastic bottles onto a conveyor belt that sends them through to the warehouse.

Drinks on tap. The capacity of the warehouse at Milton Keynes is 19,000 pallets, many cans and cartons of soft drinks are stored in it ready to be exported across the country.

A sugarfree future. In April last year the government introduced the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – more commonly known as  the ‘Sugar Tax’, which levied a higher tax rates for sugary drinks.

Ahead of the sugarless-rush. AG Barr had already been reducing its levels of sugar in its products in line with changing consumer preferences, however it sped up its reformulation in response to the sugar tax, and in the face of significant financial impacts.

From January 2018 its flagship drink IRN-BRU contained approximately 50% less sugar, and the levels of sugar in many of its other products were reduced or replaced with sweeteners.

IRN-BRU was launched in Scotland in 1901. The drink has 32 different ingredients and contains 0.002% iron, its recipe is a secret that has been handed down from generation to generation of the Barr family. AG Barr has now introduced IRN-BRU sugar free and IRN-BRU XTRA to its range.

The best-selling soft drink in Scotland. In the UK as a whole, IRN-BRU is third top behind Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Scotland is the only place in the world to out-sell Coca-Cola as the number one soft drink.

An energetic vision. Our visit came just before the company revealed it is launching an energy drink version of IRN-BRU. The new drink will have roughly the same amount of caffeine in as a medium latte from high street coffee chains, the firm said.