Group Operations Manager, George Kotses, says Bickford’s purpose-built manufacturing plant is one of the world’s most complex multi-product manufacturing lines under one roof - presenting great challenges and benefits. To ensure all facets of production are optimised and working together, digital innovation is a key strategy. 

While George says Bickford’s is keeping pace with technology, this is a humble assessment. The business has pioneered innovation in automation, is now investing in new digital tools and systems, and embedding a culture of continuous improvement to ensure it can capitalise.

The path to an agile, responsive and connected business

Bickford’s has a history of being at the cutting edge when, around a decade ago, it streamlined its operations and reduced costs by introducing automated manufacturing equipment.

This included five automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to transfer the finished product from the manufacturing floor to the warehouse, pick bulk  pallet orders and replenish and track stock levels. These robots significantly mitigated human error, reducing Bickford’s six-monthly stocktake variances from an average of up to $50,000 to within just $50, while also managing labour costs.

More recently, investing in new processing technologies has helped Bickford’s diversify its product range and markets. This included a Aseptic PET filling system and glass filling technology, to replace mechanical fillers. While George says this level of sophistication that supports diversity in its product portfolio does come at a significant cost, the return is evident in the business’ stronger market position and consumer appeal.

Improved business efficiencies have also been realised by implementing what George calls a "productivity module". That is, having software that links automated equipment to its Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, delivering real-time line performance, efficiency reporting and data analysis.

"We have real-time data on all of our lines, providing information from top down to bottom up, so everyone from executives to the shop floor has good visibility," George says. "It empowers  all users to make effective decisions, underpinned by the automation around us – from manufacturing equipment, to the back end and front end, and the processing side."

Additionally, using a compliance module analyses control data in real time, delivering immediate alerts to the quality team should an issue arise. This is an advantage to ensure quality and speed when product recalls or withdrawals occur. While most food and beverage producers experience this issue, what took days to identify stock for recall now takes minutes, affording swift decision-making and enhanced food safety management.

The acceleration of digital innovation

Looking ahead, George anticipates that digitisation across Bickford’s operations will only accelerate, with robotics becoming increasingly important. System logistics opportunities and robotics palletising will be one focus to achieve more efficient and effective inventory management, which will once again link to SCADA.

AI is also expected to take a stronger hold, with more accurate data collection and analysis to help predict demand, presenting an attractive proposition. A key area of interest for Bickford’s is using AI to enable more accurate sales forecasting and just-in-time production cycles. The end goal will be a more efficient, profitable operation with a more responsive supply chain.

Adapting to changing skills demand

Though digital innovation is here to stay, George says that Bickford’s people continue to be its most valuable asset. However, without the right people to manage digital transformation and operate new digital tools, the benefit will lie dormant.

According to George, systems and process automation has demanded a step change in Bickford’s teams, their thinking, and their skillsets. With fewer administration tasks and greater data analysis requirements, its teams need a problem-solving and growth mindset, and the motivation and aptitude to learn. This is a significant challenge due to skilled labour shortages, but one the business is tackling head-on.

Using an intensive training program, Bickford’s is cultivating a collaborative approach across its business and creating cross-functional teams and a collective-action approach to solving problems.

As George says, "Without having the right people with the right skills, even with automation, our aspirations for digital innovation aren’t going to work. We have a great team around us, and we’re all on a continuous improvement journey; we never stop, the journey keeps going."