At a time when much of UK industry is cutting back on investment, Austria-based Nom Dairy's cash injection into its gleamingly new Telford yogurt plant is a welcome change.
It also, perhaps, supplies a glimpse of things to come, bringing financial support to the UK from businesses elsewhere in Europe. Nom certainly has a lot of financial muscle to back up its £60M investment in Telford, boasting a total annual turnover of £400M.
For any visitor strolling around the UK factory, which began production of own-label and branded yogurt in February, it's easy to see that much of the money has been allocated to automation. It's difficult to tell whether this openness to new technology can be attributed to the plant's Continental parentage or simply its modern construction, masterminded by Clegg Food Projects.
The latest Schubert robots - worth euro 700,000-1.6M - preside over the packaging lines, for example, able to switch between packs of 12 and 18 yogurts and programmed to recognise different product lids. But the filling machines represent the biggest investment in automation, costing between euro 2.5M and 3M each, says head of engineering Mick St'John.
Mixing plant exists, capable of handling 5t/h of powder and dosing liquid ingredients. As with other processing functions, the system is overseen and monitored via a manufacturing execution system, says St'John. Elsewhere, robot palletisers load and wrap pallets for distribution.
But it's not just the robots that mark out the Telford site as a product of the 21st Century. There's the Voith cooling tunnel, which retains yogurts for the minimum amount of time necessary to cool them, saving energy, with space for 46 pallets.
And £259,000 has been channelled into sparkling chemical and microbiological laboratory facilities, which include a £65,000 compositional analyser for milk products, delivering results in minutes. The lab processes raw milk samples provided by tanker drivers hauling milk to the factory from nearby farms, testing for everything from pH, temperature, yeast and mould to the presence of antibiotics.
Another difference from older factories is the heavy emphasis on environmental and energy-saving credentials from its inception. The ground on which the factory is built even incorporates a conservation zone supporting species such as the endangered Dingy Skipper butterfly. "We looked at pollution control, land use and ecology," says Steve Oliver, head of quality for the factory.
Heat recovery tanks draw on warmth from water used in processing to heat the on-site offices and the boiler house generates the steam needed for cleaning equipment. "We've majored on energy efficiency and heat recovery and we anticipate being significantly better than the competition," says St'John.
The place isn't just friendly to the environment, but to the local community as well and it's easy to see why it has received such a glowing reception from Telford & Wrekin council. The factory has already created over 100 local jobs, with 300 on the cards over the next five years if expansion plans for the business work out. It's also being hailed as the largest private investment in the area for 10 years.
Nom is keen to capitalise on regional strengths, claiming Telford is the ideal location to draw on high quality milk from local farmers, and intending to source all of its milk locally. There are still significant opportunities for nearby producers to clinch supply contracts.
Any farmer coming on board stands to benefit from Nom UK's growth potential. There's definitely plenty of scope for development on the site's 22 acres of land, of which only 40% is currently being used, and considerable space for chilled storage and more filling lines. Two more are being added to the existing three by November this year.
Oliver says there's also room for an on-site plant to make fruit compote for the yogurts, replacing current supply from Poland. "We hold a low stock of fruit for just-in-time ordering," says Oliver. "But we have the potential to make that here."
Nom UK joint md Marten Schlender, alongside David Potts aims to increase production to 500M units of yogurt-based product within three years. There are also plans to double that figure within five years. The plant's capacity is 2bn pots of yogurt, with plans to take that to 5bn within five years.
The performance of yogurt in the UK certainly indicates that output is likely to rise to match this capacity. Nom's latest figures show the market has risen in value by 9.8% year-on-year to an annual total of £1.9bn.
To surf the wave of this growth, while majoring on own-label, Nom UK also aims to boost its branded offering under the Naturally Good and Naturally Creamy banners, launched in May. Naturally Creamy consists of a split pot with granola and fruit mix varieties. The three 175g fruit variants are: Senga Strawberry; Alphonso Mango & Passionfruit; and Morello Cherry fruit variants, in addition to the 150g Granola and Granola & Belgian Choc Chip varieties. Naturally Good comes in multipacks of six 125g pots of layered Senga Strawberry; and Morello Cherry, plus three smooth varieties aimed at children: Strawberry; Strawberry & Banana; and Raspberry.
Initially exclusively supplied to Morrisons, the ranges will eventually be rolled out to all of the top four supermarkets if Nom has its way. It's not as if any of the top UK grocery multiples are strangers to Nom's name. They have been supplied with billions of pots and bottles of imported own-label yogurt from the firm over several years.
At the same time, yogurt drink processing will begin at Telford from the end of this year, says Oliver. For all products, local provenance and the limited list of all-natural ingredients will be made much of in any promotions and marketing campaigns.
Of course, in all of this there's one glaring fact left to account for: the established presence of Müller in the UK yogurt market introduces an interesting variable. Founded by Ludwig Müller in 1896 as a Bavarian village dairy, the firm began processing in the UK in 1991 in Market Drayton, which, like the Nom site, is also in Shropshire.
Indeed, the relationship between Müller and Nom - founded just two years later - is even closer than at first apparent. Perhaps understandably, given the proximity of the two companies' operations, Nom UK's staff is composed of many ex-Müller employees. That includes Potts - a former sales director of Müller - and Oliver. One can only speculate on the future parallel development of the two businesses. FM