Unilever's ambitious new depot in Cannock is big - and clever. James Durston reports

Its floor space equals six football pitches. It is high enough to stack seven double decker buses on top of each other, and it has the mind-boggling capacity to hold up to 114 million Pot Noodles or 500 million pots of Colman's mustard.

Unilever has clearly adopted the adage 'big means beautiful' to inform the design of its new distribution centre in Cannock, Staffordshire. The new depot, which officially opened two weeks ago to replace three old distribution centres, boasts a whopping 22.5 acres of floor space, making it the biggest warehouse owned by a food manufacturer in the UK. But is big really best?

Tony Smith, sales director for Unilever UK, believes the old motto to be an accurate description of this gigantic new operation. "The most important thing about this depot is that we've future-proofed our business," he says.

"We have the potential to house 110,000 pallets here: that capacity makes us more flexible and enables us to provide retailers with goods on time. That's what they want."

Some £50m was spent in constructing the depot, which is run by DHL Exel and only accommodates ambient goods. An abundance of the latest hi-tech equipment minimises the need for manual labour and pens and paper. In the goods in area, for instance, pallets are electronically logged in and scanned for defects. Some 10%-15% of pallets will be rejected at this stage and forwarded to a correction area, where simple errors such as a pallet not being aligned on the conveyor can be corrected automatically. Pallets with more serious errors are sent for manual examination while the remainder pass through to the storage area.

The high bay is a vast cavern in which up to 90,000 pallets can be stored on 13 tiers. Fully automated cranes stock and remove goods here with eerie efficiency in complete darkness. From this arena pallets are transported to the 100,000 sq ft of hustle and bustle known as the picking area, which employs half of the site's 200 staff.

Up to 1,400 live products in 856 pick locations are replenished manually, while the 100 most popular products are dealt with in a fast-pick area. Replenishment is carried out by automatic cranes, enhancing speed and efficiency at the operation.

In the goods out area, the site's highest record is an output of 2,600 pallets in one day, although an average daily rate of 1,000 pallets is more typical.

The most impressive part of the whole operation, according to John Pattullo, chief operating officer at DHL Exel, is the co-packing area, where products are re-packed appropriately to suit specific retailers' individual needs and promotions.

"It's a fine room and will play a very important part in this site's success," he says. "Consumer goods companies are clearly trying to meet needs of the smaller-scale retailers. Having that capability on site enables Unilever to meet those vital needs at reduced costs and also allows for quality control, minimising the expensive risk of damage."

There are, of course, still challenges: the scale of the depot's size and its degree of automation do not necessarily guarantee perfection, particularly where the range of products and volumes varies.

An additional responsibility is ensuring that agency staff are brought up to speed with work processes - 20 agency workers are currently employed at the depot, mainly in the co-packing room.

But Smith says these challenges are far outweighed by the major advantages of this huge site. "If we were providing a crap service, we'd have a problem. In fact, we've heard nothing from our retailers since we started working out of this site. That has to be good!

"Retailers soon let us know when things aren't going well, but no news means good news as far as our customers are concerned."

Things have been going so well that he suggests development of similar sites could be on the cards for Unilever's Continental distribution centres. "The need to consolidate the supply chain is relevant to every area. Inevitably this will happen in Europe. Plans are in place but will be driven by local needs."

Big is beautiful? You bet. And for Unilever, productivity from this ambitious new depot means that profits could escalate, too.