Preserving all sorts of liquorice machinery heritage
Operations director Stuart Grogan at BCH’s production facilities
With its heritage stretching back 180 years, UK-based confectionery processing systems and food sector equipment business BCH has gained a worldwide reputation for its products over the generations. Neill Barston meets its team near Manchester.
As we explore the warren-like archives of BCH’s headquarters in Whitworth near Rochdale, UK, the company’s rich heritage quickly becomes apparent.
The large wooden drawers housing a diverse array of design drawings from the past century offer a fascinating window into the company’s intriguing history.
Indeed, the Lancashire process engineering business can trace its roots back to 1835, producing equipment across the confectionery and food sector.
Its founding members, a former gold prospector, confectioner and engineer respectively, proved a powerful combination, and set in motion a thriving industrial business that combined their talents from the 1920’s.
So, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that its present operations director Stuart Grogan is aiming to piece together a museum marking its achievements exporting ever-more advanced confectionery equipment around the world.
Its current workforce, which totals 66, are proud to be continuing the company’s traditions in producing specialist equipment lines.
These include continuous liquorice extrusion and fruit cooking systems, process conveyors and cooling tunnels, which are all designed and developed on-site within its purpose-built facilities.
But as Grogan reveals, all the company’s combined history very nearly came to an abrupt end three years ago, when the business, which had been acquired by venture capitalists, went suddenly into administration.
However, the business was swiftly saved from a fate of closure, by Cambridgeshire based food business DC Norris, which offered a valuable lifeline for the long-established manufacturer.
“It was quite a big shock for many of the 70 people who worked here when most of us were suddenly made redundant, as a number of us had served our time in the company here as apprentices and stayed on as the work is so interesting,” explains Grogan, who adds it would have been a sad loss of hundreds of years of collective engineering experience had the business not been saved.
He notes that its fortunes were swiftly revived, rapidly building up its global base of equipment orders that has ensured a strong start to 2019.
As Grogan adds, the company’s recent prominent appearance exhibiting at ProSweets was a case in point, with some significant business leads emerging.
He explains that being at such shows is of vital exposure in gaining both new leads and maintaining contact with a raft of existing customers.
It’s seen them develop long-term business relationships and friendships with companies as far and wide as Africa and Australia, to markets in America.
Significantly, he says that the original ethos of the business as a family-owned enterprise has been continued, taking an engaging and open approach to working in the confectionery and wider food markets.
This is underlined as we tour the company’s administrative headquarters building, housed within a converted former Victorian mill.
The firm’s design and development teams and software specialists are based within a large, open plan room, which the operations director says helps considerably with discussing plans and maintaining team spirit.
“In the main, apart from the blip we had three years ago, it has been very enjoyable. I’ve found no day is ever the same in all the years I’ve been here.
“I think that’s simply because of just how diverse we are, from the different challenges we get from enquiries, through to designing new machines, and developing processes.
“For me, being involved with the business management opened up another avenue, and new owners have just let myself and technical director Brendan Kennedy get on with running the company,” enthuses Grogan, who adds that being involved in the entire process over the years, from manufacturing through to commissioning enables him to have a strong oversight on the business.
He is especially keen to ensure skills are passed on to the next generation, explaining that there’s a culture of delivering projects firmly as part of a team.
Consequently, he says company is continuing its belief in recruiting apprentices, noting industry studies that highlight a current lack of younger people entering manufacturing and engineering within the UK.
“Wherever possible we give apprentices the opportunity to move from across the business, as it’s highly beneficial to be able to actually make something when it comes to approaching designing products,” adds Grogan, explaining that he originally joined the company himself in the early 1990’s as an apprentice under the company’s former ownership of Coates engineering.
With the advent of major equipment advances including industry 4.0 developments and the Internet of Things (IOT), technology is being harnessed at a rapid rate to improve confectionery machinery.
BCH has responded to a growing drive for automated systems through its in-house software team. They continue to enhance its series of machines, including extrusion equipment, modifying elements such as HMI systems to meet market’ demands for equipment ease of use and monitoring peak production efficiency.
As Grogan explains, another key element to its success over the years in developing equipment has been the introduction of its 11,000m2 innovation centre.
There has been considerable investment in its equipment, including a recent purchase of a new laser cutting system that the company says is already making a key difference to its operations.
Grogan continues that the business demonstrated its ability to engage with technology through among earliest to adopt such facilities. He says are still invaluable in providing final testing of equipment.
This is ably demonstrated during our tour, with several team members putting a liquorice extruder due to be transported to South America through its paces.
These lines, as with its other equipment, developed in stainless steel format developed with both hygienic and robust design as core features.
Its flexible extruders are primarily designed for liquorice, starch gels, fruit twists and sugar pastes, and are manufactured with 75, 130 or 200mm diameter screws to produce a broad range of throughputs of between 50-1,500kg an hour through a side flow die configuration. These can be designed to extrude sheets, ropes and twisted ropes in solid, hollow or co-extruded form.
According to the company, such design provides a cost effective, high output system that has been devised to create a strong uniformity of product weight.
Another breakthrough for the company – which Grogan cites as one of his personal highlights, has come in developing a 100% fruit cooking and extrusion system.
This is aimed at manufacturers of healthy snack ranges, which are a fast-evolving segment of the market, as consumers become ever more health conscious.
Beyond these systems, the company has also developed equipment that spans confectionery guillotines, coating pans, drop rollers, as well as glazing and sanding of liquorice product series.
“Our work is now split around 50/50 across confectionery and wider food projects. But being involved with confectionery is probably the most challenging, as there are elements that are like chemistry, as you’re blending things together.
“The machinery is also more complex. You are dealing with circumstances that often require different approaches, particularly in handling equipment installations in some pretty far flung locations that pose some logistical challenges,” adds Grogan.
He says one of the team’s key missions is to continually ensure they are challenging the status quo in terms of product design, and how the company is being administered – which he admits can be tough when dealing with installing projects around the world.
While such issues often offering considerable tests of its technical capabilities, it seems there’s more than enough demand for its services, despite the looming prospect of Brexit in just a few short weeks.
“Our business outlook for 2019 is fantastic in terms of our order book for the rest of this year, and also for 2020, which is great to see, but it can be a long time in the planning stage. For example, one of the orders we took at ProSweets actually came out of an original enquiry we had at Interpack back in 2017, which shows the value of us being at these events,” adds the operations director on the business that is thriving more than 180 years on from its roots.