Competition is rife among SME ice cream manufacturers in the UK, and coming up with delicious products is just one ingredient to staying ahead of the curve.
Lakes Ice Cream, maker of Great Taste Award-winning flavors such as Double Jersey, Thunder & Lightning and Raspberry Pavlova, used the quieter winter months to introduce a bespoke data and system integration software courtesy of Tract Systems.
“It just merges everything together,” explained company MD, James Stephens. “It’s very good for accounts and for our purchase and sales ledgers and also for doing production plans. We can keep track of all the ingredients and other things that we buy with ease. It’s also a very good distribution program and makes a lot of difference to us since we do a lot of our own distribution.
“It also gives us the benefit of having online ordering in place for all our wholesale customers and all the retailers that buy from us. They can order online on, via an app or through an internet browser.”
‘It saves us a lot of time’
The digital solution cost the company around £45,000 in total – a purchase which was match-funded by Made Smarter, a UK-wide program that offers funding and advice to manufacturers who wish to adopt new technologies to grow their businesses. Lakes Ice Cream received £20,000 from the scheme towards the initial cost, and the company also separately pays annual fees to the software provider - but Stephens says the additional expense is ‘a drop in the ocean’ compared to the benefits of going digital.
“It’s well worth it compared to what we had before,” he continued. “The system doesn’t affect the actual manufacturing, but in terms of coming up with production plans for managing stock control, keeping track of stock and raw materials and stock counts, it has made a huge difference. It saves us a lot of time.”
With companies often put off from applying to similar schemes due to complex paperwork, Stephens says the process of obtaining funding and advice from Made Smarter had been ‘absolutely brilliant’. “I usually hate filling in forms, so I wouldn’t tell you otherwise,” he explained. “It was still time-consuming but they were great. We had a couple of conference calls with their representatives and we had to get some quotes from a few places, but overall, it was a pain-free experience.”
Lakes Ice Cream introduced the new system between November and end of December 2021, allowing staff to get used to a different way of working during the less busy months of January and February.
The 'greenest' factory
Since then, the summer has seen ‘record sales’ according to Stephens, and with that, a growing demand for some of the company’s products, part of which are sold at tourist hotspots like the Lake District and British seaside town Blackpool.
“Outside of Made Smarter, we have invested in automated ice cream machinery which is still being made for us,” he explained. “We also bought a continuous freezer and an automatic filling machine for our 1L tubs, which makes the process 3.6 times faster.
“We are also looking to buy additional automated machinery for the dairy. We make 4L and 5L tubs for catering; we also manufacture for retail stores including Waitrose, Morrisons and Ocado, and have another market for our 125ml pots, which is growing quite rapidly. So that machinery would help us cope better with demand.”
The investment made so far feeds into a larger strategy that involves the creation of ‘the greenest ice cream factory’ in the country, as Stephens told DairyReporter.
Plans are afoot to finalize the land purchase for the new plant – a process that’s ‘easier said than done’ in the highly sought-after, environmentally-protected Lake District area, where the company is currently based.
Speaking of the environment, is Lakes Ice Cream looking at measuring and minimizing its carbon footprint? “We look at this, of course, but there’s only so much we can do at our current premises,” said Stephens. “Ultimately, we would want to build a new factory in the next two years. We are hoping to have the greenest ice cream factory in the country.”
Parts of the sustainability measures that Lakes Ice Cream will consider include deploying water recycling technology, using renewable energy, and even self-generating energy.
Stephens concluded: “We are a regional brand but we are growing further and further into the rest of the country. It’s quite a gradual process, but we are hoping to get much bigger in the coming years.”
What's Made Smarter?
Made Smarter was founded in 2019 as a result of industry-led research to uncover how to boost UK manufacturing productivity. The scheme was launched in the North West of England as a £20m government-funded initiative and was later extended in the North East, Yorkshire and the West Midlands. SMEs of up to 250 employees are eligible for support, which besides funding includes advice around technology, strategy and skills, all tailored to the needs of each specific business.
Since its launch, Made Smarter has worked with more than 2,500 businesses and supported 250 technology projects. Besides Lakes Ice Cream, there are several other dairy sector businesses that have taken advantage of a Made Smarter grant, such as Lancashire Farm Dairies, a Rochdale-based natural yoghurt producer which invested in an end-of-line robotic palletizer; Bulters Farmhouse Cheeses of Preston, which invested in software systems, and Dewlay Cheesemakers, which purchased an enterprise resource planning system.
Asked why more local businesses from the sector should be interested in the scheme, a spokesperson for Made Smarter told DairyReporter: "The dairy manufacturing sector, like every industry, is experiencing a tectonic shift, as digitalization drives the automation of processes and products. Technology adoption is enabling businesses to overcome technical challenges, accelerate processes, improve productivity, and become more sustainable.
"From using robotics and process control technologies to improve sustainability and automating data collection points to create a line of traceability, technologies are not only helping producers overcome challenges, but also unlock a whole host of opportunities."