28 Sep 2021 — Unilever’s ice cream factory in TaiCang, China, has joined the Lighthouse Network, the World Economic Forum’s community of manufacturing sites.
Lighthouse sites adopt and deploy Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies – a fusion of digital technologies like AI, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), genetic engineering and quantum computing – to transform business operations through tech advances and sustainable practices.
The TaiCang site is the third Unilever factory to achieve this status.
“Applications for the Lighthouse Network is a vigorous process,” a Unilever spokesperson tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “WEF delegates, who are chosen by an independent panel of experts, visited the site to assess the use of Fourth Industrial Revolution Technologies in driving growth. Twenty-one new sites were added, which gives you an idea of scale.”
“We’ve made great advancements in bringing advanced technology into our manufacturing sites, gaining real-time visibility of our supply chain and equipping our workers with digital skills,” they add.
“Our first site, in Dubai, joined the Network in January 2020. So we were thrilled to be adding the third site to the Network; it’s a great recognition of the digital transformation of our supply chain.”
Among its tech-aided advancements, the F&B giant was able to reduce the average changeover time of a production line – switching from Magnum vanilla to chocolate, for example – from eight hours to just nine minutes.
In addition, new Unilever research shows that through smart automation, the Cornetto wafer cone is four times crispier than other available products.
The future of manufacturing?
The site at TaiCang has been operating since 1996 and now produces two million ice creams a day, for brands such as Magnum, Cornetto and Wall’s.
This is the equivalent to 60 million liters of ice cream each year. The factory’s adoption of revolutionary technologies, such as digital smart machines and AI, has resulted in increased speed and agility and paved the way for Lighthouse status.
“Unilever is on a journey to digitize its supply chain. The TaiCang site’s adoption of new technologies has expanded the factory’s efficiency and agility,” comment Marc Engel, Unilever’s chief supply chain officer.
“It has seen a 42% reduction in manufacturing costs, while increasing ice cream market share in China The TaiCang site showcases a new type of smart manufacturing; one that combines productivity and competitiveness with environmental efforts. We see this as the future of manufacturing.”
The technology used in TaiCang has enabled the factory team to become more agile in keeping up with fast-paced consumer demand following the unprecedented boom in e-commerce, Unilever notes.
Digital platforms gain the latest insights from consumers through e-commerce and social media channels, and One-click AI Sales Forecasting is able to accurately predict demand. Being able to combine consumer insights with a digital R&D platform has also drastically shortened the innovation lead time, from 12 months to three.
The factory’s digital transformation has also accelerated sustainability efforts. Carbon emissions have been reduced by 83%, with electricity and water consumption being reduced by 14%.
The site is on track to be carbon neutral within the next two years, directly contributing to Unilever’s target to have zero emissions from its global operations by 2030.
“By digitally transforming our value chains, we have been able to match the fast demands of the consumer and continue to produce our iconic and much-loved ice cream brands at scale,” concludes Jennifer Han, Unilever’s head of supply chain foods & refreshment.
Unilever’s ice cream developments
Unilever declared a “strong performance” in its half-year 2021 results, highlighting a boom in its e-commerce business and a robust outlook for its ice cream business. Despite sales not yet returning to pre-pandemic levels, innovation and marketing in high performing ice cream brands Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum have produced double-digit growth.
Over the summer, Ben & Jerry’s made headlines after announcing it will no longer be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).
Israel’s prime minister recently warned Unilever of “severe consequences” after its subsidiary made the announcement. Having held talks with CEO Alan Jope, prime minister Naftali Bennett branded this move as an “anti-Israel” step, stating it amounts to a boycott of Israel.
By Benjamin Ferrer
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