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Unilever's largest ice cream plant opens

By HE WEI in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2022-03-30 08:19
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Magnum ice cream. [Photo/IC]

Consumer goods giant Unilever on Tuesday unveiled its largest ice cream factory worldwide in Taicang, a county-level city under the jurisdiction of Suzhou in eastern Jiangsu province.

Unilever executives said the factory reflects the company's "China speed, determination and capability".

The factory uses digital technologies like artificial intelligence and the internet of things. Thus, it is part of the "Advanced Fourth Industrial Revolution Lighthouses", a consortium of intelligent manufacturing sites recognized by the World Economic Forum.

It can produce 2 million units of Wall's, Magnum and Cornetto ice creams daily. The factory also aims to achieve carbon neutrality in two years, said Han Fangjun, nutrition chief product supply chain officer at Unilever, during a video conference.

"Unveiling the plant today represents … the unparalleled China speed, China determination and China capability, while carrying hefty symbolic meaning for the ice cream market in China and globally," Han said.

The Wall's ice cream factory in Taicang is the first ice cream lighthouse factory in the world. It is also the second "lighthouse factory" in China following the Hefei production base.

AI-backed sales forecasting models, which leverage social listening across various platforms, allow accurate prediction of consumer demand so that the company can respond to consumer needs in close to real time.

The speed of rolling out innovation will be cut to three months from 12 months. For instance, the R&D team uses 3D printing to mock up packaging samples and develops new nozzles about 80 percent quicker than the time taken for developing a typical stainless-steel component.

Other technology highlights include a brand new single-scan tracing app that enables end-to-end chain traceability and direct product delivery to customers.

China has become the largest consumer market for Magnum and Cornetto. With the COVID-19 pandemic unlocking people's desire to consume ice cream at home, the company aims to develop unique products that pamper the taste buds of the Chinese, said Benny Xu, ice cream general manager for Unilever North Asia.

They (Chinese customers) prefer not too sweet or greasy flavors …(value) quality and healthy raw materials as well as diverse and green packaging, he said. "At the same time, e-commerce consumption is growing rapidly."

Ice cream was not a popular treat at home until the pandemic hit, when locked-down consumers sought comfort food, according to a report on China's FMCG landscape published last year by consultancies Bain and Kantar Worldpanel.

"Now people are buying ice cream at record rates," said Jason Yu, general manager of Kantar Worldpanel in China and a seasoned retail expert.

"In that case, the new pandemic-inspired behavior, combined with a long-term shift to premium products, is delivering record sales for that category."

Apart from adopting intelligent tools to increase efficiency and realize a flexible and fully automated production, the site is also pioneering sustainable factory practices, capable of reducing 14 percent of energy and water consumption and cutting carbon emissions by 83 percent.

The energy management system collects and monitors consumption data on a daily basis, identifying areas where it can make further improvements.

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