Construction of Chinese infant formula supplier Synutra’s first operation in France was not only a big step forward for the company, but also for JBT PLF which played a key role in the project from initiation through to completion, as PLF’s Ian Hillaby recalls.
Ian Hillaby has been travelling back and forth between the UK and China for more than 25 years, making contact with key players in China’s powdered infant formula industry. It was on one of these trips, around 10 years ago, that Hillaby initially made contact with Synutra, a Chinese infant formula manufacturer in the Olympic sailing city of Qingdao, which at the time had little in the way of any presence outside the country.
However, it was not until some five years later that the initial meeting would come to fruition. Remembering their meeting Synutra contacted PLF and Hillaby for advice on an ambitious new project: design and construction of a can making and filling line for their new €230 million manufacturing site in Brittany, France, the company’s first venture outside Chinese borders.
Above: a tour of the Synutra France facility (in French)
Brittany was chosen for entirely practical reasons. As a center for milk production in France, the region could provide a steady, reliable source of fresh milk for processing purposes.
PLF was involved at the greenfield site from the very start, advising on the installation of high-speed turnkey canning lines (at that time, almost all Chinese companies used low-speed lines) as part of what would eventually become one of the fastest infant formula lines in the world.
“PLF became involved as Synutra was looking for the ability to manufacture and fill cans, and we were able to offer a complete turnkey solution,” explains Hillaby.
Aided by PLF’s already strong reputation for project delivery in the infant powder industry, PLF and Synutra got round a table, as Hillaby recalls, and started looking at what the company was trying to achieve and specific non-conventional options, such as pre-gassing technology. A pioneer in this area, PLF offers a pre-gassing system before the powder reaches the filling line, which maintains a sealed, modified atmosphere from the start to the finished product. As a result, the powder is never exposed to the outside atmosphere before sealing is completed, adding an extra layer of security in the process.
“We took probably 6-8 months from that initial meeting to completing the project design, then another 12-15 months to build and install,” says Hillaby. “There was quite an intense element of guiding, so not only the customer learnt a lot during the process, but there was also a learning curve for PLF as well. But at the end of the day, we got the job done and it’s a fantastic reference for the industry.”
Of course there were challenges along the way, one of the biggest being dealing with Chinese legislation, but Hillaby says Synutra was very happy with the final results; results which have led to a greater involvement for PLF in China. “We’ve just shipped our first line to a local Chinese infant formula manufacturer and we are hopeful that by the end of this year we can confirm further lines for another of China’s major infant formula producers,” Hillaby adds.