Me and my team

Canny thinking: investment and improvement at Kraft Heinz

By Stuart Lawson

- Last updated on GMT

Lawson: ‘We have agreed to £13.6m of investment to upgrade 200g Snap Pots capacity, one area that’s growing for us’
Lawson: ‘We have agreed to £13.6m of investment to upgrade 200g Snap Pots capacity, one area that’s growing for us’
The manufacturing director of Kraft Heinz’s Kitt Green site, billed as Europe’s biggest food factory, explains the benefits of investment and continuous improvement.

I started off as a mining engineer for British Coal in the Nottinghamshire mines. After seven years there I joined Heinz, starting as a shift manager in beans production.

I’ve been with the company for 25 years, with experience at plants in Germany and the Netherlands, plus 13 years at Kitt Green off and on. I was plant manager at Dundalk in Ireland for seven years and have been site director here for four years.

We make 95% of our cans,  prepare product, cook in the can and sterilise everything, using eight cooker-coolers for beans and pasta, three hydrostatic sterilisers for soups, plus rotary retorts for Heinz Beanz Snap Pots.

We buy from all over the world and have alternative suppliers for all ingredients in case of any issues. We bring all our haricot beans over from North America via Liverpool docks and source fresh vegetables from the UK.

Once filled, products are packed on pallets and taken to warehousing and our on-site national distribution centre, run by Wincanton.

Our manufacturing focus is on safety, quality and cost. We have improved safety on-site through a simple approach of ‘stop and think before you act’.

Performance indicators

Product quality is front of mind and we have a series of key performance indicators to make sure we are delivering on that. We have the lowest level of consumer complaints in Kitt Green’s history now.

Minimising cost is also a priority. We concentrate on raw material conversion in terms of labour, waste, capital expenditure, utilities and maintenance.

This plant was opened in 1959, so we have to do a lot of work in terms of using gas, electricity and water efficiently. In the past four years we have attracted over $£113.6m of investment, including £18.9m on high and low voltage distribution infrastructure.

We have also spent £7.9m on a new canmaking line, which can process up to 1,100 cans a minute, and £2.1m on automated guided vehicles that can pick pallets off lines and take them to distribution points in our warehouse.

In the past 12 months we have undertaken Project Darwin, a £24.2m project to modernise filling and packaging, installing a high-speed line that can fill 1,200 cans of beans and soups a minute, a high-speed weigh filling line and a triple-pack can packaging line.

Recent innovation for our Beanz with Pork Sausages has allowed us to fill up to 800 cans a minute with individually quick-frozen sausages.

We have just agreed £13.6m of capital expenditure to upgrade the capacity for 200g Snap Pots. This will allow us to grow production to 75.5m units a year by 2020.

Recent changes

With all the changes, we have had to move stuff around to create space. New buildings suck up cost, so we’re instead trying to focus on new equipment in existing areas.

We don’t just get out-of-the-box systems and work takes longer than you anticipate, often 12–18 months for major projects. But we’re very demanding when it comes to the effectiveness of customer service and have maintained 98–99% levels throughout all the work taking place. We’re the sole canned goods site. Nobody else can match our throughput.

Investing in staff is important, too, as the largest employer in the area. We have an apprentice programme in engineering, for example, and have employed 20 apprentices in the past five years.

What makes me most proud is that we have managed to attract all that investment in a period of cultural change.

My biggest challenge here has been changing the culture and moving from the old Heinz business to a faster-moving, more dynamic business under the new Kraft Heinz ownership following the merger in 2015. We have had to make ourselves leaner and more nimble.

Highly unionised

We are a highly unionised plant and I had to convince people that the old days of confrontation were not the way I wanted to continue. People test you, but it’s about trying to remain calm, because that’s when you think logically.

The continuous improvement programme we started rolling out ten years ago has allowed us to produce more goods in a shorter time.

Operations and shift managers monitor 24-hour production. The head of manufacturing monitors performance at a more strategic level.

The people responsible for lines have to make up performance charts in red [under target] or green [on or over target] for the past 24 hours. It’s a powerful tool if you’re posting red up every day. We have individual accountability for that.

We have also progressed significantly on condition monitoring for equipment. We try to determine when a machine will break down before it does and move to proactive maintenance.

We are not there yet in terms of collecting all plant data. We have 450 programmable logic controllers on lines transmitting information. We are undertaking a project to cut that by 50% to reduce complexity.

Evolving this plant into the factory of the future is fundamental to my role.

Heinz Kitt Green

Location:​ Spring Road, Kitt Green, Wigan WN5 0JL
Size:​ 66,095m2​ production space and 86,931m2​ storage
Group turnover:​ £22.3bn
Staff:​ 850 in operations
Main products:​ Heinz Beanz Snap Pots, canned beans, pasta, meals and soups.
Production lines:​ 10
Factory output:​ 1 billion cans a year, including 450 million cans of Heinz Beanz.
Lawson:​ His loves are his wife Alison; kids Kirsty (23) and Callum (21); rugby and golf.

Related topics: Ambient foods, People & Skills

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