UK chocolate maker Friars gains industry support for automising its operations

UK chocolate manufacturer Friars has gained support from industry body Made Smarter, to enable crucial automisation of its production processes to increase the scale of its operations, writes Neill Barston.

The Cumbria-based firm began making its  own brand of premium chocolates by hand last year amid the pandemic, after nearly 100 years of retailing a broader range of confectionery.

As the company explained, an increasing demand from consumers, has led the third-generation family business to adopt a process solution which will automate the labour intensive element of its production line while retaining key handcrafted elements.

The investment will enable Friars to increase its output from 30kg per day to 250kg – an increase of 733% – with significant scope to scale up production.

Automaton will make it almost three times cheaper to produce the same amount and maintain a consistent quality. It also intends to invest in a new factory and  distribution centre near Penrith.

Originally, Friars started life as a cafe and catering business in 1927 before fully moving into retail in the 1970s with two shops in Keswick and Ambleside selling confectionery and giftware. Over the last 30 years it has built a reputation as a chocolatier, sourcing premium products from the UK and Europe and selling through its website and shops.

It has been supported by the government-backed industry organisation Made Smarter North West Adoption programme which for the last two years has worked with 1,200 makers in every corner of the region providing advice, expertise and financial support to help them grow their business, increase competitiveness and reduce inefficiencies through digital tools and technology.

Managing Director Michael Webster, who runs the business with his brother Richard (pictured in main image with head chocolatier Nicola Woodier), commented: “Our ambition is to become one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of quality chocolates, but in order to do this we need to look to technology to enable us to scale up our operation while producing the highest quality possible.

“Made Smarter’s support and advice has accelerated and de-risked our investment in process automation technology which will take the brakes off our growth plans and transform our business.”

Donna Edwards, North West Adoption Programme Director at Made Smarter, said: “Friars is a superb example of a Made Smarter-supported business which has identified the value technology can bring to its operations.  By combining automation technology with its handcrafted techniques, Friars is forecasting significant growth, and productivity and efficiency gains.

“Friars is among hundreds of manufacturers in the region grasping the opportunities offered by Made Smarter which include expert, impartial technology advice, digital transformation workshops to help take that first step to transform a business, a leadership programme, and funded digital technology internships.”

In 2020 after struggling to find a reliable source of vegan chocolates, Friars began making their own, and now produce up to 6,000kg of chocolates annually, using an entirely manual process. But due to the handmade nature of the product, Friars has been unable to scale up using the same methods and techniques.

As the business explained, it is now adopting a continuous tempering machine to ensure the molten chocolate is the correct temperature. The moulds for the chocolate are fed into a loader which connects into a SELMI depositor.  This automatically fills the moulds with chocolate and then feeds it along a 4m cooling tunnel. The chocolate is then demoulded by hand, enrobed by chocolate before being manually decorated and refrigerated.

Michael said: “The human element is at the start and the end of the process, making up the recipe and then hand finishing the product. The digital machinery will replace the manual, repetitive, time-consuming and sometimes painful process in between.”

This extra productivity will allow Friars not only to satisfy its own direct sales requirements but also to wholesale, and enable Friars’ head chocolatier to devote more time on the research and development of new products.

“The retail sector is going through an uncertain time, so we need to secure our future,” Michael said. “Made Smarter has given us real confidence that our approach is the right one.”

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