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Cheese and Onion at pace: How Walkers crisps beat Covid crunch!



Food manufacturing has undergone a seismic shift

Innovation-driven resilience has demonstrated how further automation will be key to managing out the tremendous risk that has developed in super fast time as lockdown measures were announced globally.


Lean and agile


Suddenly the world we all thought we knew simply stopped. Habitual markets and income streams had the plug pulled and those who were lean and agile enough to transform their production had a profound opportunity to clean up the market. One particular manufacturer that leveraged the crisis to reappraise their modus operandi were Walkers crisps, the Leicester based household name that has become a food staple in the UK.



Overnight ways of buying changed


After the now infamous press conference by Boris Johnson on the 23rd March asking every pub, café, restaurant, swimming pool, gym and any other space for social gathering, the market for single bags of crisps snapped shut. Yet people would still want crisps. During lockdown, a packet of crisps represented a link to the outside world and the old normal! In fact, 63 million in-packet snacks were bought in just one week! But during lockdown they weren’t going to be available with a pint, or meal deal, in a vending machine, petrol station or alongside a takeaway coffee. The only significant outlet left was the supermarket multi bag. The race was on to ensure production was switched to cope with 'unprecedented' demand.


Business as usual one day, the next, everything changed


Bearing in mind an additional £1 billion was spent in just one week, in the early days of the lockdown, the pressure to keep up with demand was critical. Volumes expected only at Christmas were being experienced on a daily basis. The factory needed to produce around 1350 00 more multi bag packs every 24 hours with a full lorry leaving from despatch every five minutes, compared to every six minutes in the recent past. That equates to around an additional 48 trucks on the road every day. Before Covid, multi packs represented only 30-40% of Walkers’ business but now represents a staggering 90%.



But with social distances and a ban on travel who undertakes repairs?


How do you manage the same volume but in a different format? Normally Walkers make a standard retail box by putting single crisp packets straight out of machine into cardboard. Of course, the multi pack is more complex and this has necessitated a reconfiguration of conveyors and control logic to enable packets to move to multi pack machines. In addition, the need to have a factory firing on all cylinders at all times has never been more critical. The machines are examples of precision engineering with slicing, frying, flavouring, packing as just a few examples. With engineers unable to visit site new technology was required to undertake emergency repairs fast.


What changes did Walkers have to make in the light of lockdown?


During the weird state of lockdown and faced with a faulty potato fryer the potential to lose up to 20000 bags of crisps every hour was very real. However, a new headset, with camera attached, allows engineers and suppliers to see exactly what an operative can see from wherever they happen to be. In this particular repair instance Walkers were able to connect the supplier in Seattle with people in Walkers’ Dallas office, the Netherlands and Leicester to solve the problem. Three headsets have been delivered in just the last few weeks and has proven to be a game changer. It means anyone can see and monitor the pace of production up close. Therefore, it’s very easy to see 28 machines delivering 85 bags of 24 multi packs per minute moving up a conveyor belt.


Many businesses are working differently and there will be changes for good.


Walkers have always invested heavily in innovative tech to remain Britain’s number 1 crisp producer. In terms of distribution, for example, the need has been to move 5+ million crisp bags all over site. The solution was to develop a monorail with its own computer-controlled system to cover 27 square kilometres across the various packing and distribution areas.


Monitoring, tech and innovation


From the packing bay to loading, the control room tracks every packet and every delivery vehicle as it crosses the UK. This enables lorries to also collect potatoes on their return as required. Everything is tracked minute by minute. When you consider Walkers ship 50k pallets per week this is a considerable monitoring operation but means Walkers is lean and agile enough to cope with surges like those caused by Covid 19. It’s through monitoring, tech and investment that food manufacturing will continue to innovate and overcome future challenges. The staff required to run such extraordinary enterprises need to be forward-thinking, agile with a 'can-do' mentality. Walkers proves what can be done when there is focus and a common purpose.