Blog: Italian cheese and million pound machines - Simon Lebus

Blog: Italian cheese and million pound machines - Simon Lebus

Thursday 26th February 2015
Our Group Director of Operations, Kate Barnett, and I took a quick trip to Italy at the end of January to visit SITMA near Bologna. SITMA manufactures the counting and verification machines which we use to envelope and address all of the 36 million question papers which we sent to 170 countries worldwide last year.

Cheese blog simon machine small - imageWe now have three of these machines, each of which costs around £1 million and which have enabled us to reduce the numbers of people involved in what was previously a tiresome, lengthy and error prone process.

These machines were originally developed to bundle up and envelope flyers for insertion with Sunday newspaper supplements and we've worked closely with the Italian manufacturer over the last seven years to refine the technology, in particular, incorporating precision counting and weighing capability so that we can make sure we get the right number of papers in each envelope and can identify immediately any errors in packets being sent out to individual schools.
The Italian manufacturer was so proud of the innovation we developed together..."
The Italian manufacturer was so proud of the innovation we developed together that they came to film a promotional video at our distribution centre, DC10, where the machines are housed. This is something we also like to include in tours when our various international customers come to Cambridge as it is a good illustration of the complex operational and logistical support functions that are needed to underpin our ability to deliver on our educational mission.

Bologna small - imageIn contrast, the following day SITMA owner Signor Ballestrazzi (who is also a great gastronome) took us to visit a nearby artisan Parmesan manufacturing co-operative. This takes in milk from local herds milked that morning which then goes straight into their craft processing operation being turned within hours into enormous rounds of Parmesan through a process of heating, salting and compression (there are no other added ingredients except for the setting agents), before being left to dry out on wooden shelves in their warehouse. I estimated there were around 25,000 cheeses there of 38kg each which are required to mature for two years before they can be sold. Each wheel can sell for up to 420 euros and they are so valuable that a local bank offers to hold them as collateral on loans.

Cheese tasting - imageIt is an eerie sight seeing long rows of cheeses stacked high on their shelves with a forklift truck with robotic attachments going up and down the rows turning the cheese to ensure they are aired equally on all sides.

This sort of factory is being squeezed out however by the march of big dairy companies and increased regulation from Brussels. There are also natural hazards - the 2012 earthquake led to large losses for manufacturers as warehouse shelves across the affected region collapsed, spoiling stock and creating an unusual health and safety hazard.

Cheese making - imageOf course it is difficult to protect against natural disasters such as earthquakes and although these are not a feature of East Anglian life, we did suffer disruption a couple of years ago when the Icelandic volcano exploded.

These sorts of natural calamities are difficult both to anticipate and protect against, but we have invested heavily over recent years in our logistics and distribution capability (which as recently as eight or nine years ago was housed in a series of small warehouses along the Newmarket Road in Cambridge) and although they are probably not earthquake proof, they are certainly much more resilient than they ever were in the past; proof we hope against most anticipatable problems, and an absolutely key element in our capacity to operate on a global scale and to deliver our educational mission.

Simon Lebus

Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment

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