Based in Cumbria, Friars started making its own brand of premium chocolates by hand last year, after nearly 100 years of retailing confectionery products.
Now to meet increasing demand and to accelerate growth, the third-generation family business is automating the labour intensive element of its production line while retaining handcrafted features for its products.
The £100,000 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.
Three times cheaper to produce
Automation would make it almost three times cheaper to produce the same amount and maintain a consistent quality, the company has confirmed.
The business also plans to invest £750,000 in a new factory and distribution centre near to the motorway in Penrith.
Friars has been supported by the Made Smarter North West Adoption programme. For the past two years the initiative has providing advice, expertise and financial support to 1,200 producers across the region.
Increase competitiveness, reduce inefficiencies
The assistance has helped 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, said: “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.
Technology combined with handcrafted techniques
“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.”
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 past 30 years it has built a reputation as a chocolatier, sourcing a huge variety of premium products from the UK and Europe and selling through its website and shops.
Unable to scale up
In 2020 after struggling to find a reliable source of vegan chocolates, Friars began making their own. It now produces up to 6 tonnes of chocolates annually, using an entirely manual process. Due to the handmade nature of the product, Friars has been unable to scale up using the same methods and techniques.
Friars is adopting a continuous tempering machine, which is used to ensure the molten chocolate is the correct temperature.
The moulds for the chocolate are fed into a loader which connects into a SELMI One Shop Depositor. This automatically fills the moulds with chocolate and then feeds it along a 4 metre cooling tunnel. The chocolate is then demoulded by hand, enrobed by chocolate before being manually decorated and refrigerated.
“The human element is at the start and the end of the process, making up the recipe and then hand finishing the product," said Michael Webster. "The digital machinery will replace the manual, repetitive, time-consuming and sometimes painful process in between.”
The extra productivity would allow Friars to satisfy its direct sales requirements and wholesale. It would also 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,” Webster said. “Made Smarter has given us real confidence that our approach is the right one.”