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Cream of the crop in Eden

02-Jul-2010
Last updated the 02-Jul-2010 at 21:48 GMT

The premier teaching establishment for the dairy sector has opened at Reaseheath College in Cheshire. Rod Addy looks at what it has to offer

Project Eden. It's a grand name for what is essentially the strategy designed to deliver top class talent to the UK dairy industry.

The closest thing to the Garden of Eden in this instance is Cheshire's Reaseheath College, which plays host to the hub of that training: Eden International Dairy Academy.

Who's to say if it will live up to the name, delivering perfection in tutoring the ice cream, spreads, cheese, milk and yogurt magnates of tomorrow? One thing's for sure: all the seeds for growth are there.

The bulk of the funding for the £2.7M facility came from the North West Development Agency (NWDA). An additional £700,000 has been allocated by the food industry. The project is the product of a unique collaboration between industry, the college and the National Skills Academy (NSA) for Food and Drink Manufacturing.

Firms such as Arla, Dairy Crest, First Milk and Müller have all provided input into its creation. Like a fine Emmental, the idea behind Eden took some time to mature in this case, two years.

"This all came about because the dairy industry in the UK was facing serious skills shortages in some critical areas for example, a severe shortage of qualified dairy technologists," says Jens Termansen, Arla supply chain development director. "This was something everyone in the industry was aware of and agreed on.

"When the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink Manufacturing was set up, it opened the door to serious, constructive, collaborative discussion on the future of skills and training in our sector. We now share a vision of what our current and future skills requirements are, how to meet them and how that will help improve the competitiveness of our industry and our individual companies."

Crucially, in addition to a range of lower level qualifications, such as National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates, Eden offers more professional training than could previously be accessed by the dairy sector. "Qualifications that were offered were one or two levels below where we ended up," says Jim Chalmers, NSA European dairy education project manager. "Previous qualifications didn't really reflect what was happening in the industry. Technology and process flow had moved on."

Chalmers was tasked with liaising between the industry and Reaseheath to ensure Eden would deliver what companies wanted. "I was trying to make the industry understand what was feasible within the funding and trying to communicate between the industry and the education sector." Historically, communication between the two had not been good, so he had his work cut out he says.

However, his efforts have paid off. Eden has established a Foundation Degree in Dairy Technology. It will educate dairy students in all aspects of their trade, from engineering and science to commercial areas such as profit and loss, lean manufacturing and energy management, claims Chalmers. The first intake of undergraduates have almost completed their first year and the quota for 2010-2011 has nearly been reached.

At Eden's official opening on June 10, Jim Begg, director general of trade body Dairy UK, called it "one of the best equipped training dairies in the world" and "a major vote of confidence in the future of the industry".

In terms of facilities, Eden's pilot plant has three 5,000l storage tanks; a pasteuriser for cheese making that can process 2,300l of cheese per hour. Its 2,300l capacity, fully automated cheese vat is, according to Derek Allen, commercial manager for food at Reaseheath, "the most advanced cheese vat in the country", supplied by Siemens.

There's a milk pasteuriser that can produce 1,300l of milk an hour, which can work automatically with a milk separator to deliver milk of any fat content specified. And two aseptic fillers can carry out all ultra-high temperature (UHT) processes.

The flexible plant can make anything from sauces and jellies to ice cream and yogurts. In short, the facility is designed to echo all the conditions of a commercial dairy operation. It will even be available to businesses for development trials and will be manufacturing products for sale.

The NSA intends to replicate Eden to provide comprehensive dairy sector training across the UK. "We're trying to identify what specific skills are required in the industry," says Chalmers. "Once we've done that we will determine which skills providers are best suited to deliver the kind of training needed."

However, Eden's remit is even more ambitious than that. Chalmers says the NSA means to use it as a model for creating similar hubs for training covering not just dairy, but every food and drink category. "We want to use the model as a way of dealing with wider skills issues in the food industry."

Despite the economic climate, Chalmers is philosophical about funding. "The programme is funded through higher education funding from government and course fees paid by employers. Whether that balance changes, who knows? Employers may have to contribute more."

Amid all the excitement and celebration for the dairy industry, it's important to realise that Eden is just part of a wider £6.4M investment into Reaseheath College's food industry training centre.

A significant tranche of this cash has already been spent and Allen says: "We're spending another £3.6M to give us further facilities for teaching for food businesses to use. This will include a separate area, where students will be doing butchery.

"A new building will join on to the processing hall we have just finished. Included in that will be business innovation units that businesses can hire for development work or for manufacturing products for sale. The next phase of building starts at the end of this month and will take a year to complete."

Allen says the college will also offer processors equipment to hire, as well as access to expertise and advice from the manufacturing department.

And that's not all. Work has begun on an Enterprise Delivery Hub at Reaseheath, again funded by the NWDA, with the objective of helping businesses in the north west to increase their contribution to the region's economy. The hub will be split into three parts, focusing on food; agriculture and sustainability.

The project will aim to forge links with UK Knowledge Transfer Networks, which exist to further innovation through knowledge exchange between industry, academia, financial institutions and technology groups.

In addition, Reaseheath will offer innovation vouchers to support business ventures. Companies will either be able to apply for £7,000 worth of funding by contributing an initial £3,000 or a smaller amount of £3,000 without financial commitment on their part.

In a time of austerity, it is good to know that seeds are already being planted in preparation for future times of plenty in the food industry. Jerusalem may not be being built in England's green and pleasant land, but it seems that Eden just might be, at least as far as the dairy industry is concerned. FM

A Wiseman open to learning

Alex Duckworth was one of the first to enrol in the Foundation Degree in Dairy Technology at Eden International Dairy Academy in September 2009 one of the prototype Adams, if you will.

He was one of six employees from Robert Wiseman Dairies selected to join the first intake. Duckworth was unusual among his peers in that he had not previously worked on production before, having joined Robert Wiseman as a distribution driver four years ago.

"All six of us taking part in Project Eden have been freed up from our old job roles and allowed to focus fully on our dairy technology course," he says. "The training is split into intensive residential blocks, after which we return to work and concentrate on coursework and special projects looking at ways we can put our training into practice to benefit the business."

After the first residential period at Reaseheath, he was chosen to participate in a company-wide Environmental Best Practice project. "It started in January and is due to be finished by the end of the year. The aim is to continue to improve production site hygiene standards across the whole company, so we're looking at areas where improvements can be made, analysing data and making recommendations that will lead to developing best practice guidelines."

Drawing on their learning at Reaseheath, other Robert Wiseman students have put their know-how to good use in other areas of the business. Ossama Ramadan and Kevin Yau from Wiseman's Manchester facility, for example, ran a cleaning-in-place optimisation project, saving £43,000 annually by analysing rinse times and recommending changes.

Asked how he thinks Project Eden will help his ambitions, Duckworth says: "I'm targeting a management position within three years, definitely."