Specialty food manufacturer boosts productivity and revenue after support from Made Smarter

A specialist food manufacturer has experienced a huge boost in productivity and profits after investing in automation technology with the support of Made Smarter.

Based in Stockport, Firstplay Dietary Foods makes a range of low-protein products for people with metabolic disorders such as phenylketonuria (PKU), which means people are unable to eat protein without risking brain damage.

With growing international demand from patients and nutritionists due to the increasing number of countries offering newborn screening, the company has invested £120,000 in new digital machinery to increase its blending capacity while replacing a manual weighing and packaging process with automation.

The company was supported by grants from Made Smarter’s North West Adoption Program, a government-funded, industry-led initiative that helps SMB manufacturers invest in new technology and digital skills.

As a result, Firstplay has increased production capacity 10x, reduced human error and waste, and is expected to increase revenue by 30%.

In addition, two operators now focus on more value-added activities such as sales and complex packaging tasks.

Tom Fletcher, Managing Director, said: “Our growth has been organic with only occasional investments to modernize our production processes.

“Our partnership with Made Smarter is changing that. We have a long-term strategy and digital roadmap to achieve these goals. My only wish is that we would have done it sooner.

“By replacing a manual, low-skilled task with automation, we can do much more with the resources we have and upskill our existing staff, which is extremely valuable for a small business.”

Firstplay was founded in 1993 by Steve and Linda Fletcher to help people living with PKU, an inherited metabolic disorder that affects around 1 in 10,000 people in the UK.

Over the decades, the company has grown steadily, expanding its product range to include dried pasta, flavored pasta bags, breads, baking mixes, snacks and soups for a growing global market.

With ambitions to target emerging markets in China, the Middle East and America, Firstplay needed to address its productivity and manufacturing efficiency challenges.

However, a major bottleneck in the production process was the manual weighing and packaging of certain products, which had a limited capacity of around 600 packages per day and was prone to error and waste.

With Made Smarter grants, Firstplay invested in a powder packing machine that includes an automatic multihead weigher and powder measure. It works by loading the product through a hopper, digitally weighing and correcting the amount of product, and then dispensing it into a pouch and sealing it before it’s delivered for packaging.

The new equipment also introduced a live data feed, giving management a real-time view of variables such as equipment running speed, total losses and average weights over the course of a shift.

The result was transformative, increasing the number of pouches it can produce from 600 to 6,000 pouches per day.

Digital process control means packs are filled more evenly, quality is improved and waste is reduced, both in time and in packaging materials.

With a digital transformation roadmap in hand, Firstplay is now exploring a range of projects including data and systems integration technology to connect its new machines to a barcode scanning system for inventory control, and implementing business and production software for better data analysis for Improve production efficiency.

Donna Edwards, Made Smarter North West Adoption Program Director, said: “We are delighted to support Firstplay in the first phase of its digital transformation. It’s a fantastic example of a company using technology to automate a process, create growth and enhance existing roles while laying the foundation for further improvements.

“Firstplay is among hundreds of manufacturers in the region taking advantage of Made Smarter capabilities, including expert, impartial technology advice, digital transformation workshops to take the first step in transforming a business, and support with technology investments. I would encourage other mid-market manufacturers to do the same.”

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