WHITLEY BRIDGE, UNITED KINGDOM – Whitworth, the largest flour miller in the United Kingdom, has made a ground-breaking investment in Bühler’s Mill E3, becoming the first grain processor in the world to take up the new technology. The new installation, completed in September, is the latest move in a long-term partnership between the British company and the Swiss solutions provider.

Mike Peters, managing director of Whitworth Bros., explained to World Grain that Whitworth is a very proud family business.

“Whitworth Bros. Ltd. and Carr’s Flour Mills Ltd. are part of the Whitworth Milling Group, which is a family-owned business,” he said. “The principal shareholder is Martin George, whose son, Michael, is also on the board.”

Frank George (Martin’s grandfather) bought Whitworth in Wellingborough in the late 1920s and subsequently bought Cadge and Coleman in Peterborough in 1936. The company has worked closely with Bühler for the last three decades.

“We were a small business,” he said.

Then, in the 1990s, the family decided to invest in new technology. It started with a flour mill at the Wellingborough location, a project carried out with Bühler. It started production in 1998, in a building designed for two mills. The second Bühler mill followed in 2004.

“The business continued to grow, and in 2006 we installed a further Bühler plant across in Peterborough,” Peters said. “That continued very successfully so we installed a second plant at Peterborough.”

The company built another flour mill at Wellingborough in 2012.

“At that point we were continuing with our organic growth,” Peters said. “Then, we acquired the assets of Smith’s Flour Mills back in 2012 when Smith went into administration.”

Smith’s had three sites, in Worksop, Holbeach and Langley. Worksop and Holbeach were retained, and Langley decommissioned.

“In 2016, we acquired two heat treatment plants from Jas Bowman,” Peters said. “Bowman’s decided to leave the UK flour milling market. In September 2016, Whitworth acquired Carrs Flour Mills Ltd., which had recently built a new Bühler flour mill in Kirkcaldy.”

Then in 2018, Whitworth’s acquired two sites from Rank Hovis, Manchester and Selby, when the former giant of UK flour milling decided to manufacture for its own bakery sites.

“Then, of course, the most important, most recent step for us is the new development at Whitley Bridge, which is the new E3 flour mill,” he said.

With the investment and growth of the past three decades, Whitworth is now producing around 1.4 million tonnes of flour (wheat equivalent) a year, making it the largest flour miller in the UK.

“We are all aware that flour milling is not a high-margin business,” he said. “That is where we had a very clear direction from the family and the board on the focus that we take. It is about quality, service, food safety, innovation, having the best technology and the best people. If you can use those pillars as building blocks for your business, then you have the opportunity to gain market share.”

Peters said that if you look at the recent Mill E3, “there is such a lot of innovation,” highlighting the groundbreaking new mill’s internet of things (IoT) and block chain capabilities.

Putting itself in front of the market in terms of innovation and technology also benefits Whitworth in terms of sustainability and energy use.

“These are all benefits to come from investment,” Peters said. “The way we are looking at it is that there are like-minded companies out there that could be our customers, or maybe are our customers, and would join us and benefit from a very sustainable, secure value chain.

“We have a pretty good history of reinvesting. We always want to ensure that we are keeping in the forefront, pioneering and developing that technology along with Bühler. If you want to be efficient and you want to make use of your highly trained colleagues in the right way, that investment does enable you to be very competitive.”

The company runs its own logistics.

“We employ our own drivers — over 170 of them,” Peters said. “We have 100-plus assets out on the road, well branded so people know when they see our trucks. That whole service comment doesn’t just end at the mill door. All our colleagues are playing a part in that service and value chain.

“We also work very hard with our tanker manufacturers to look at innovation and technology. It’s not just the mill side of it. It’s looking at delivery and how you can further secure those deliveries to your customers.”

Peters said the company’s mills have been built in strategic locations, generally in the UK’s main grain-producing region in the east of England.

“We are in the grain basket,” he said. “We try to bring wheat in from 40, 50, 60 miles away. It helps with that sustainability. It helps reduce your carbon impact.”

Peters also stressed the importance of designing the intake facilities of new mills with the driver in mind.

“We want to make them high-capacity, easy-to-use,” he said. “If you can get your visiting drivers in and out very quickly, it becomes a destination of choice. They want to service you.

“If you are keeping drivers waiting around on site to discharge grain, it doesn’t help. There is a lot of focus all the way from plant design to ensure that we make it right and we make it quick. It encourages hauliers and merchants to want to service us.”

Speaking at a time when UK farmers and grain traders are in the early stages of finding markets for newly harvested wheat, he underlined the importance of being a customer of choice.

He also stressed the importance of flexibility in a changing marketplace. The shifts in consumption patterns because of COVID-19 and the accompanying restrictions have driven that lesson home. 

“What we saw during the pandemic is foodservice struggled, and where you would have had a supply going into foodservice, it moved into other sectors,” he said. “It moved into industrial, batters, coatings. It moved into small retail packs and into home baking.

“We are very much mindful of not being leveraged too heavily in any particular sector. We are very adaptable. We can move quite quickly with market trends.”

As well as changing the market, the pandemic also changed the way millers could work. Where staff could work remotely, they did.

“That was enacted very quickly,” he said. “You put all the necessary COVID controls in that you can. We followed government guidelines. We were very fortunate that we had very few colleagues that were off ill. For flour mills, due to the level of automation we have at our disposal, the actual running of the mill does not rely on a lot of people. You can run it with one person. You can run it from any smart device.”

Drivers were the area of focus.

“We had to be very careful,” Peters said. “If you had an issue with your driving force, no matter how good you were at making the product, you weren’t able to deliver it. We managed that, as the whole industry did in the UK, very well.”

Peters is enthusiastic about working with Bühler.

“What is great for both businesses is that we have a really good partnership together,” he said. “We do work in a very open way. We are happy to challenge each other. Bühler is very good at the technical, flowsheet design of a mill and at building it, and we are very good at running it.”

Whitworth is exploring the full “smart” capabilities of the new E3 mill and Peters is keen to exploit the full potential of a system with over 15,000 data measuring points. The aim of the Bühler design is for the data generated and analyzed at the Whitley Bridge plant to enable the machinery to optimize its own production, moving toward what the Swiss company calls the SmartMill.

Sensors check the wheat coming in, while the Arrius fully integrated grinding system constantly checks flow and varying raw material quality. There is a Temperature and Vibration Management Service (TVM), a Yield Management System (YMS), Error and Downtime Analysis (EDA), Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and Replay.

The result is continual data feeds on machine and process, potential maintenance issues and how machine performance relates to quality and efficiency.

The information from the sensors is sent to the Bühler Mercury Manufacturing Execution System (MES) to facilitate control of every aspect of the mill’s internal workings and to the IoT platform, Bühler Insights, where algorithms compare past and present production and process parameters. The system makes sure the mill is always operating at optimal efficiency to produce the most consistently high-quality product achievable.

 “There is a lot of data out there that needs analyzing,” Peters said. “It is fantastic and that will continue to develop as we move forward. It’s very exciting.”