Aimee Shaw takes a look at how artificial intelligence and other technology has enabled Cadbury owner Mondelez International to scale-up its chocolate manufacturing.
More than 2000 kilometers outside of New Zealand is a factory dedicated to making chocolate confectionery for Easter.
In Ringwood, in the Australian state of Victoria, more than 600 staff work for snack food company Mondelez International's Cadbury factory, which produces 35,000 tonnes of chocolate each year - the equivalent in weight to almost two Sky Towers.
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This factory spends nine months of the year manufacturing chocolate for Easter, and about 9 per cent of its annual output is supplied to New Zealand shops.
A second factory in Scoresby manufactures marshmallow products for Easter, this was previously done in the Dunedin factory, which closed in early 2018. When production was moved to Australia the company relocated eight team members to continue to work on the Easter lines.
All Cadbury Easter eggs and chocolate figurines on shelves in Australasia are made in Melbourne, except for Cadbury Creme and Caramel Eggs, which are imported from Britain.
Cadbury has invested $13.5 million over the past year to upgrade and introduce 20 new manufacturing robots to fully automate its chocolate foiling and packaging process, the company says this has helped to increase its output on its Easter production lines.
Dani Breidler, manufacturing manager at the Ringwood factory which operates 15 production lines, who overseas all of the chocolate production in the facility, says the new manufacturing equipment was installed in June and has automated production as the demand for chocolate and bigger Easter ranges increases year on year.
The factory now makes about 600 kilograms of mini eggs per hour; about 30,000 eggs daily, and goes through about 15 tonnes of chocolate per day.
Including all sizes of chocolate eggs, the factory produces over two million each day or 15 million per week in preparation for Easter. In total, it produces over 950 million units of eggs and bunnies during one season, about 650 million units are of eggs.
Over the past three months in the lead-up to Easter, the factory has been operating 24/7.
The Ringwood factory is Cadbury's largest manufacturing site in Australasia, approximately 210,000 sqm in size, and in addition to manufacturing Easter products, it also makes chocolate bars, including Crunchie, Picnic and Cherry Ripe, and boxes of Cadbury Favourites and Roses.
Global consumption of chocolate is increasing by about 5 per cent each year.
Cadbury's manufacturing for Easter starts in June, Breidler says, with the last two to three months of the nine-month season the busiest.
"We have two main production lines where we produce our Easter products. We have 100 to 150 people working on these two lines across three shifts, and two months before Easter we will have 24/7 production. Before that, we usually run the plant on 24/5 shift patterns."
Breidler says the technology to make chocolate figurines and more complex items such as marshmallow has evolved a lot, which has made the manufacturing of chocolate for the significant event more efficient.
"In the Easter manufacturing unit we had a lot of manual handling during previous seasons," says Breidler.
"We have now upgraded our lines where we have put in a lot of automation like robots doing the movements and people are now more there supervising equipment."
Chocolate production in the Ringwood factory starts its journey in the "chocolate room" where ingredients are added and the chocolate is transferred to three 10,000 litre steel tanks. From there, it flows to different areas of the factory and is poured into moulds.
The factory uses technology called spin moulding to join two halves of mould by spinning it at different angles so the chocolate is evenly distributed and the two sides are sealed. This method is used to create large hollow chocolate eggs and bunnies.
From there, the figurines come out the other end after the moulds are hammered, and on to a conveyor belt and moved through to the foiling line to be packaged.
Approximately 64 full-size chocolate bunnies are wrapped per minute in its factory - times this by three to account for the number of production lines working simultaneously. The factory manufactures 13 different types of chocolate bunnies.
Another method Cadbury uses to make its Easter chocolate is "frozen core" or "cold stamp" technology, whereby a cold press set at a temperature of -7 degrees Celsius pushes the chocolate out into the mould and freezes the core. The two halves of the eggs are then closed and the edges are heated up so the chocolate forms a glue and are stuck together, this process is called "rim heating" and is mainly used for smaller eggs.
Mini eggs with caramel in the in middle are made the same way with chocolate first deposited into a model, caramel added on top and the two half joined together.
Cadbury refers to its production lines after the name of the producer of the equipment.
Bernadette McDougall, shift team lead of the Easter production lines, has been working in the Ringwood factory for 30 years, says automation and advances in robotics has made work life in the factory more efficient.
"It's easier and more efficient. The technology we have now tells us where our problems are, and it is an easy training tool for the team - the team can pick up straight away when there is a problem; [the machines] will even tell them how to fix it," says McDougall.
"Everything was manual when I first came here. We used to sit on lines and pack by hand, now, it is all automated and packs itself. It's so much quicker and so much more user-friendly. It used to be hard work, because everything was physical. It has got easier on your body over the years and we get a lot more output as it is much quicker."
Staff now oversee the machines as opposed to working hands-on. The production team is now able to do a week's worth of work in just a day, says McDougall.
"Our output has ramped up absolutely - it is a lot faster than it used to be."
Cadbury has three chocolate factories in Australia - two in Melbourne and one in Tasmania. The brand started out as a family-owned business in the 1800s in Birmingham, England. Post-World War One, New Zealand and Australia were among the company's first export markets, where it sent different family members to set up the international businesses.
Kraft Foods, now Mondelez International, took over Cadbury in January 2010, it acquired the company for £8.40 per share, valuing Cadbury at £11.9 billion ($32.5b).
Today, Nasdaq-listed Mondelez has a market capitalisation of around US$72.6b ($122b). It posted an annual net revenue of US$25.9b in the last financial year.
William Papesch, senior marketing manager of chocolate in New Zealand, says Cadbury creates more than 60 products skews for Easter for the New Zealand market, and about 90 for Australia.
"We will probably start planning for Easter 2021 almost as soon as we finish this Easter; in May or June, that's when we'll pick up the conversation again - it's a full year-round loop."
Surprisingly, Easter is a bigger deal in terms of sales than Christmas for Cadbury, with Easter accounting for about 15 per cent of its total annual sales.
"It's the biggest seasonal event for chocolate," says Papesch.
Paul Chatfield, director of (marketing for) chocolate for the ANZ region, says Cadbury plans for Easter in a two to three-year cycle.
The company produces its chocolate - sourced from Ghana and milled in Singapore - for Easter, all year round, with the exception of a one to two month period window when manufacturing has been completed, he says.
"An interesting aspect about Easter is the ranges do tend to be different around the world. Mondelez through the Cadbury brand has a very strong presence in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, but we also have a very large business in Brazil and Western Europe."
Cadbury Creme Eggs, like hot cross buns, are its first Easter product to hit shelves, usually two to three months in advance of the boxed eggs.
One in every two households buy into Easter each year, according to Cadbury.
Last year the company sold over 660,000 individual Cadbury Creme Eggs and 275,000 chocolate bunny figurines - just in New Zealand. Marshmallow eggs are also a top-seller.
Chatsfield says marshmallow eggs and other products were a signature New Zealand favourite. "Shopper behaviours are very similar between New Zealand and other key chocolate markets in the world, so there's not a major difference there, but what is different is the products that we know Kiwis love."
An average of $3.50 is spent on chocolate per household in New Zealand each week, equating to $322 million worth a year, according to Stats NZ.
By weight, each New Zealander consumes about 5.8kgs of chocolate each year.
New Zealand imported $246m worth of chocolate - the equivalent of 29 million kilograms - last year. About $137m of this came from Australia, followed by $16.3m from China and $16m from Switzerland.
Greg Harford, chief executive of Retail NZ, says Easter spending has been growing year on year for the past five years, with product ranges growing in size based on consumer demand.
"Easter for some is a really important spiritual and religious time of year, but from a shopping point of view, the big thing about Easter is of course confectionery and hot cross buns - there's strong consumer demand for those products," Harford says.
"It has always been a very significant shopping time. Over the past 20 years there has been strong growth in the Easter market."
Harford says Easter eggs were stocked on the shelves often months in advance of the occasion which showed the popularity among consumers.
"It's a quite competitive market, there seem to be new brands and new players coming into that Easter market, quite regularly, so that shows there's growth and demand in growth on Easter spending."
Easter and the increase in spending on confectionery, typically brings more discretionary spending and dining out over the four-day weekend, Harford says, though this year is expected to take a hit due to the lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19.
"The financial impact of Covid-19 on Easter trading this year is going to be that things aren't so good, obviously customers won't be out and about in the shops and cafes, and grocery sales might be impacted a little bit because people normally stock up on Easter Wednesday or Thursday before Good Friday; we're unlikely to see these peaks this year."
What came first the bunny or egg?
The very first Easter product Cadbury released was the chocolate egg.
It started to manufacture Easter eggs in 1875 and by 1893, the its Easter list included 19 different lines. In 1906, a cardboard egg was introduced to the range, which contained units from one of Cadbury's assortments - this is now a staple in many households.
The Cadbury Creme Egg as we know it today made its debut in 1971.
It is not known when the chocolate bunny was first released.