Unilever trials ‘nano factory’ in portable shipping container

To enable more flexible and agile food production, engineers at consumer goods company Unilever have designed a nano factory that fits into a 12-metre container. The prototype is a fully-functioning, mini production line that houses everything needed to produce a batch, from the point where raw materials go in at one end to where finished products come out at the other – bottled, capped and labelled.

The digital factory is currently being trialled in the Netherlands, and from the end of this month it will produce liquid bouillon for Unilever’s Food Solutions business. If successful, the model could be adopted by other divisions.

For Unilever, the nano factory will be especially useful when producing smaller volumes of products, testing new products and responding quickly to changes in consumer demand.

“Unilever has over 300 factories across 69 countries. Many of these are big facilities, designed to manufacture products in large quantities, at high speed. But sometimes we need to produce a small volume – maybe a seasonal variant – or test a market with a particular product before launching it full scale. It’s often not commercially viable to use a mass production line for this, as each switchover takes time.

“Similarly, there are occasions where we need to respond quickly to changing demand in local markets, whether that’s to increase or decrease production. Again, it isn’t easy to ramp up or scale down when you’re designed for mass production,” the company said.

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