In search of efficiency

by Morton Sosland
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Allied Mills' new Coronet Flour Mill combines production efficiencies with dedication to fulfilling the needs of a diverse group of baking customers.

By Morton I. Sosland, Editor-in-chief

   It was a search for “the most efficient flour mill in the world” that prompted the recent visit to the new Coronet Flour Mill of Allied Mills Ltd. in Manchester, England. That description of “most efficient” is difficult to define, much less to prove. Yet, it became obvious that the Coronet Mill, newly built on a greenfield site and in full production for little more than a year, makes a strong bid for such a description if for no other reason than its uniqueness among the flour mills of Europe and North America.

   Especially revealing is how this uniqueness stems not just from this plant's efficiency in producing flour at the most competitive costs but also for its dedication to producing flour that meets the highly demanding functional requirements of a diverse body of baking customers. Coincident with all of this, the mill has realized a return on investment that matches, if not exceeds, the high expectations of its parent company, Associated British Foods P.L.C.

   Most impressive of all, though, in coming to understand why the Coronet Mill — named after one of Allied Mills' major flour brands — is special was that least-cost milling was not the sole, or even ultimate, goal in building the facility. As explained in the course of a lengthy interview with Ralph Richard, chairman of Allied Mills and also chairman of the Cereal Industries group within A.B.F.; Martin F. Connolly, managing director of Allied Mills; and Mark Fairweather, Allied Mills' operations director, the absolutely last thing they wanted to create was a factory that simply turned out flour at low cost. Instead, their goal, which has been realized almost from the moment the plant began production in the summer of 1997, was to achieve a unique combination of the most advanced milling technology in combination with the skills of experienced flour millers.

   “We wanted to be sure that we did everything possible to utilize the knowledge and experience of our millers rather than having just processors of wheat,” explained Mr. Fairweather.

   Joined by Mr. Connolly in discussing the mill and in leading a tour of the plant, he stressed that the goal was not just to have a mill with the highest extraction rate, but to have a plant that would assure the ability of the millers to produce flour with the exact functionality needed by the baking customer. “This required a great amount of flexibility in how we flowed the mill,” Mr. Fairweather explained.

   From a cost saving point of view, the Coronet Mill, as have all of Allied Mills' fully modernized plants, has reduced overhead and cut back on energy expenditures. It was estimated that a new mill like the Coronet Mill utilized about a fifth less energy than a “conventional” mill of the same capacity.

   The Coronet Mill is almost 100% equipped with machinery provided by Buhler Ltd. of Uzwil, Switzerland. Indeed, the plant comes as close to being 100% supplied by a single equipment manufacturer as any similar-sized plant around the world. Only a single piece of wheat cleaning equipment bears something other than the Buhler label. Everywhere in the plant, from wheat intake to packaging, the Buhler label is prominently displayed.

   This total reliance on Buhler equipment applies to the entire Project Apollo that involves the expenditure of £100 million (U.S.$164 million) on modernizing the Allied Mills plants (see box on Page 9). The Coronet Mill in Manchester represented a capital outlay near £20 million of that total.


   Even while praising the decision to rely almost totally on Buhler as significant to the Coronet Mill's success, the Allied Mills executives stressed that the flow of the mill and many of its elements originated within the milling company.

   “We began with Buhler presenting a generic mill flow for the daily capacity we wanted,” Mr. Fairweather explained. “We then took that flow sheet and put our ideas back to them to suit the type of milling that we believed was appropriate to our goals and expectations.” Contrary to recent trends in flour milling flows, Allied Mills sought to increase the milling surface rather than shorten it. “At the end of the day, our desire was to have maximum flexibility, and we thought that is best achieved in this manner,” Mr. Fairweather said. “This is why we have placed such great emphasis on wanting our millers to mill wheat into flour, rather than having reliance on a factory, albeit one operated by the most sophisticated electronics and computer systems.”

   One of the major areas of attention was in the flow of stock to the sifters. “We believe an important key to milling is understanding the importance of stock quality,” Mr. Fairweather said. “It is in this way that we are able to attain optimum yields, while at the same time recognizing that this is really not our principal target. The target is assuring the functionality of the flour for the customer for which it is aimed.”

   The Coronet Mill has 750 tonnes of daily wheat grinding capacity (equal to about 12,000 U.S. cwts of flour), divided into two units — “A” with 450 tonnes and “B” with 300 tonnes. The flow is slightly different for each of the units, and more soft wheat is ground on the “A” unit than on “B,” although both are able to mill soft wheat. The two units began operations within a month of the other: the “A” mill in July 1997 and the “B” mill in August.

    The “A” unit is equipped with nine double-high (eight-roll) roller mills, six single (four-roll) roller mills and four large metal-frame Buhler sifters. The “B” unit has six double-high roller mills, four single rollstands and three sifters.

   In a plant where efficiency has been paramount, there was consideration given to erecting the mill as a single unit, but the final decision came down in favor of two units. “The cost of equipment in one unit as compared with two doesn't differ significantly,” Mr. Connolly noted, “while the two units gave us great benefit in flexibility as well as in assuring flour functionality.”

   The focus on flexibility and functionality becomes especially important when it is realized that the Coronet Mill alone produces 55 different grades or types of finished flour. Mr. Fairweather estimated that, in a typical week, 12 different wheat grists were being utilized for the two milling units.

   Finished flour represents the result of variations in wheat grists, by the blending of flour and by the addition of vital wheat gluten, a ubiquitous practice in European flour milling to affect protein content. The wheat grists, of course, vary considerably with the quality of the harvest, not just in the U.K., but also on the European Continent.

   Each of the milling units has its own flour blending plants, one a batch system and the other offering continuous blending.

   The Coronet Mill runs seven days per week, 24 hours per day, after allowing for Allied Mills' policy of shutting down each mill for between four and six hours each week to conduct a preventative maintenance program.

   The mill is manned with millers from 8 o'clock in the morning until 5 p.m. As a so-called “lights out” operation, the plant usually has no millers on hand in the hours after 5 p.m., with the plant operating according to pre-set process controls. At the same time, millers can make adjustments in the system from their home personal computers, similar to what may be done from the central control room looking out on the rollermill floor or watching the run through a computer-driven process control system.

   “Lights-out,” Mr. Connolly said, does not mean there is no staff at the mill after 5 p.m.; security people are always on hand as well as staff to manage bulk flour deliveries, which are made around the clock, seven days per week.

   The plant ships about 65% of its output as bulk flour in bulk lorries owned by Allied Mills. These lorries, which typically carry 23 tonnes of flour, are operated by drivers who are considered ambassadors of the company in their firsthand dealings with customers. Indeed, flour lorry drivers are regarded as excellent sources of information about developments in the flour business in the areas and plants they serve, and a system is in place to be sure that information the drivers learn is properly communicated.

   Bagged products, mainly in 16-kilo and 32-kilo bags, are stored in an adjoining warehouse that also accommodates specialty products made at the group's mill in Corby, where mix production has been centered.

   A sales force is headquartered in the office structure that is part of the Coronet Mill, working with the national sales headquarters as well with the local plant. Mr. Fairweather, who previously was general manager at Coronet, said he “knows all the customers.”


   Nothing symbolizes the drive for efficiency at the new mill better than the way in which it handles incoming supplies of wheat. The newly built silos adjoining the mill have a capacity of 13,000 tonnes (less than 500,000 bus), which Mr. Connolly described as minimum for a mill of this size.

   He explained, “We did this because building silos cost money but, more important, large stocks of wheat also cost money. It was our view that the smaller the wheat storage at the mill, the more the focus would be on stock control. Limited storage would force us to become pro-active in selecting the wheat we need to buy, and we would have to develop an extremely close relationship with the hauliers and grain merchants that would be supplying the plant with wheat.”

   This approach has worked well, he said, even though it means that the plant receives between 50 and 60 lorries of wheat daily and the intake is in excess of 5,000 tonnes per week. At the same time, the mill has developed a system that assures wheat hauliers that lorries will be handled expeditiously, with the goal of receiving and releasing a lorry that brought wheat within a 3-hour “delivery window.” Turnaround time for a wheat lorry is less than an hour, from the time of arrival, through testing of quality to unloading.

   Loads of wheat are automatically sampled by a system that delivers samples to the mill's testing laboratory. No wheat is unloaded until it has been found to conform with the quality purchased, and several lorry-loads are rejected each month.

   The large laboratory at the mill, which duplicates facilities at other Allied Mills plants, tests not only wheat samples but also flour deliveries against customer specifications and functionality requirements. An extensive “test bakery” operation is part of the laboratory, with emphasis on new product formulations that will help a customer produce a specific product better and/or at a lower cost.

   The Coronet Mill is on the north side of the Manchester Ship Canal, on a 9-acre site that once was a quarry. Located near the “perfect center” of the Allied Mills' customer base in the northwest of England, the plant is in the middle of the Trafford Park (also called Centenary Park) industrial area. It also is within a mile or so of one of the largest urban shopping malls ever built in England. Across the canal from the new mill is a large Cerestar plant that refines maize and wheat into starch and other products.

   The site was chosen with encouragement from the local Manchester city government as well as from an organization called English Partnership, which uses government funds to encourage investment in new plants on greenfield sites.

   “The building was turned over to Buhler in October 1996 and the first unit began commercial production in July 1997,” Mr. Fairweather noted. “Not only did Buhler do a superb job in installing the equipment, using our staff to help, but two of our millers went to Thailand prior to our start-up under Buhler auspices to assist in a new mill installation there. In that way, we were totally prepared to commission the new mill.” About a fifth of the Coronet staff came from within Allied Mills, while the balance was hired locally. Every department was responsible for its own recruiting and training. “Best practices” within Allied Mills provided the criteria against which performance was measured.

   Mr. Connolly, as managing director of Allied Mills, described the Coronet Mill start-up as “phenomenal” and “the most successful we have ever had.” Customers were invited to see the mill during the equipment installation phase, with special attention to flour buyers from mills that were to be closed as part of Project Apollo.

   “We wanted them to know that we had designed a flour mill to be operated by millers, that we recognized that our future depends on our knowing and responding to the needs of our customers,” Mr. Connolly said. “There's been a lot of satisfaction in doing that as well as the Coronet Mill has permitted.”