Food manufacture has lagged behind other industries in embracing efficiencies and is now facing a tough challenge to change the way it is working, according to Philip Acock, the MD of Fourayes Farm, the UK's biggest Bramley apple processor.
Acock believes developing new techniques to offer a low-cost, high-volume ingredient supply system is making the industry stronger. That includes shortening production lines and sourcing more cheaply from abroad.
"With the rationalisation going on in the food industry we recognised there would be fewer manufacturers and they would want a bigger offering from fewer, successful suppliers," said Acock. "There was a tremendous amount of work to be done in taking costs out and improving quality, and we worked hard at making sure we had the skill base to support our customers technically.
"Lean manufacturing is a radical change but a necessary one because only the companies that can adapt and keep investing will survive. I'm not a supporter of the price pressure exerted by the supermarkets on manufacturers, which come back to us and back to the growers. But I think there has been a halt in the decline, and there is even talk of planting orchards following the popularity of Magners cider.
"Increased demand for cider apples has pushed up the price of our raw materials, but it is a matter of being firm when negotiating over price with customers and being in a strong bargaining position."
Lean thinking has delivered results. The staff of 80 expect to produce 12,000 tonnes of fruit this year, up from 10,000 last year and 6,000 three years ago, while turnover to the end of March 2006 is £7.6m, up from £5.2m in 2004. The original 50-acre farm now covers 100 acres and is dedicated entirely to growing Bramleys for processing, while other fruits are bought in to offer customers a wide range of fruit fillings, from cherries, rhubarb and blackcurrants to strawberries and raspberries, and recently fruit mincemeat.
The company is no stranger to innovative approaches. It was instrumental in extending the canning season for Bramleys by pioneering better growing techniques and storage, and this enabled baking companies such as Mr Kipling to make products using fresh fruit for the first time. In the 1980s it developed the use of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) to create shelf-life diced apples without chemical preservatives.