Inside the high-tech manufacturing at beverage icon Bickford’s Australia

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By Belinda Willis

As most of Bickford’s 180 Salisbury based staff are home at night sleeping, a squad of five driverless forklifts quietly traverse the distribution warehouse preparing for the morning’s deliveries.

They follow instructions uploaded to a computer system during the day to ensure the correct products, among some 400 made by the South Australian drinks business, are waiting at the loading dock.

“We have a software program that allows us to track each item by location, the automatic guided vehicles will put away stock in designated locations, then they can pick up stock from those locations and we can track every aspect including use by dates,” supply chain manager Darren Wittenberg says.

When the automatic guided vehicles were bought for the Salisbury facility in 2012 the company was one of the first in the state to incorporate the technology into its production and distribution system.

Now the company that sold Bickford’s these vehicles brings potential new clients along to show how effectively they operate.

Automated guided vehicles make their way around the Bickford’s warehouse.

In fact, Darren and commercialisation manager Shane Houghton are often conducting tours of the pristine and highly efficient production lines and warehouse that is family owned and overseen by Bickford’s Group chief Angelo Kotses.

It’s surprisingly quiet inside the vast building where five different production lines ensure the company’s juices, cordials and alcohol products are bottled and packaged.

Among them is the iconic Bickford’s Lime Juice Cordial that helped make the company a household name and, in 2006, was recognised by the National Trust of South Australia as a Heritage Icon.

A PET packaging and filling plant is able to blow, decorate, fill and pack a range of still and hot plastic bottles, while other sections of the facility label, wrap and pack bottles for distribution to customers all over the world.

“Over the past 10 years, the business has become very complex,” Darren says.

“It has grown through acquisitions of brands and assets and they have all come into the Bickford’s Group family, in order to coordinate that growth we have had to put new equipment and systems in place so it’s streamlined.

“One day we will be running water, cordial, juices and later in that day it may switch over to beer, wine or spirits.”

Bickford’s Australia is one SA company that has taken on advanced manufacturing processes to improve capabilities.

As a result, the group that owns both Bickford’s beverages and Vok, the alcohol beverage unit of the business, has aimed to keep its state-of-the-art manufacturing facility it moved into during 2005, ahead of the curve.

Commercialisation manager Shane Houghton says it’s vital to have efficient systems.

Its production lines can be quickly cleaned and switched to alternate drinks for bottling – while the automatic forklifts transfer products from the production shed and into the warehouse using a cutting edge software program.

“Effectively we don’t need to stock-take any more, our warehouse management system has 100% stock accuracy,” Shane says.

The vehicles stop if sensors pick up movement ahead and if they aren’t working, drive themselves back to battery charging stations around the warehouse.

This embracing of advanced manufacturing technologies is an impressive vision for one of the nation’s oldest brands, founded more than 175 years ago.

The Bickford’s group has also invested in sterile filtration technologies, meaning it can produce a number of products free of preservatives that do not need to be pasteurised.

Bickford’s Group marketing manager Chris Illman is a proud supporter of I Choose SA.

“As a beverage company, a vital ingredient in all our products is water,” according to company statements.

“Naturally, purity is supremely important so we invested in a sophisticated water treatment plant that uses reverse osmosis technology. Before being used in our products all water passes through a series of filters to remove the impurities.”

The group also owns a $25m purpose built manufacturing facility, the 5000 tonne crush Step Road winery in Langhorne Creek on the Fleurieu Peninsula.

Other assets include the 23rd Street Distillery in Renmark, the Beenleigh Distillery in Queensland, Pomegranates Australia in the Northern Mallee and the Beresford Estate luxury function centre and tasting pavilion, nestled among 28ha of super-premium vineyards at McLaren Flat.

Staff based at Bickford’s Salisbury headquarters and production site in northern Adelaide are equipped with the latest in ordering programs, with the sales team using tablets and iPads for direct ordering.

“We are always looking at ways to improve, whether it be through programming or engineering, we never stop at the status quo and say that’s how we do it now, “ Darren says.

“It’s about working smarter not harder, if you don’t it means more costs and we want to be the most cost effective producer out there so we can be competitive not just to imports coming in but also exporting to other countries.”

I Choose SA for Advanced Manufacturing stories are made possible by City of Salisbury:

Industry in focus: Advanced Manufacturing

Throughout the month of September, the state’s advanced manufacturing industry will be under the magnifying glass as part of I Choose SA.

As SA transforms away from traditional manufacturing processes, innovative and sophisticated products and services are taking their place, creating new jobs and investment opportunities for the state. Read more stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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