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WALTRIM: A unique ultra modern tea processing facility

19 November 2010 07:30 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Dr. N. Yogaratnam

Tea processing is still considered an art, as distinct from a science and several critical judgments are left to the subjective decisions of factory staff. Another weakness in tea plantation management is between field and factory technology, where the emphasis has overwhelmingly been in respect of the former.
It has been of a renewed thrust in manufacturing technology which not only calls for large funding but also more significantly the development of a strong combination of modern equipment consistent in performance, consistent method and materials, good design and clear instructions. They have now come to  realise that such a combination will eventually lead to a consistently satisfied customer.
It is therefore recognized that the link in pursuit of quality management in tea is the installation and maintenance of the tea process management system that will facilitate the attainment and conformity of the product characteristics required for the market .A good example of such an initiative is the story of the Waltrim Tea Factory
A catastrophe struck on 28 April 28 2008, a date when Watawala Plantations Plc , the holding company and the entire workforce of Waltrim would prefer to forget. A spontaneous inferno that literally struck from nowhere, within half an hour reduced to ashes the entire tea factory. That was the end of what was then known as the Waltrim
had the capacity to process approximately 25,000 kgs of Green Leaf per day and manufactured approximately 1 million kgs of tea per year.
 'Waltrim Tea' held a prestigious place amongst the finest of Ceylon Teas. The Waltrim Estate 'mark' has always been synonymous with high quality and is held in high esteem among tea connoisseurs throughout the world. It, as a tea garden mark, is not of recent origin but is steeped in tradition and has maintained its aesthetic as well as its commercial value over the past 80 years.
Location of new facility
Watawala Plantations, rather than lamenting over this catastrophe, through its determination built a new ultra modern, state-of-the-art and eco-friendly tea processing facility at Waltrim Estate itself, at a site just 100 metres from where the old factory was located... This enabled them to fulfill their obligations to their partners in this business for many decades (the staff and the workers) who were displaced in employment and to boost their morale, the tea industry, the country as a whole and more importantly its loyal customers.
During the initial planning stage, a decision was taken to relocate the factory at a much higher elevation to enable the manufacture of a different quality product but with the concerns expressed by the company's valued employees at Waltrim, the tea trade, the company's loyal customers and most importantly in order to regain the status, glory and fame of the once prestigious, traditional 'Waltrim' Mark, the factory was re-located within the same estate.
Waltrim is a tea garden mark and is also an extraordinary tea garden mark. It is located in the upper reaches of the Agrapatana range of mountains. Although not easily accessible, it is nestled in an exemplary and untouched tea environment which complements rather than mars the factory's optimum placing.
Groundbreaking and earthworks began for new factory in January 2009 and was completed by May 2009. Factory construction work began in June 2009 and the factory was commissioned on  March 17 2010. This 45,000 square foot factory building and worker facility nestled within a tea field occupies an area of over 1.5 acres. The total investment made in this facility is around Rs. 290 million. This factory is now acclaimed as one of the best  - an ultra-modern, high-tech tea processing facility in Sri Lanka. This factory is also the only complete full-scale, single unit of tea processing built up-country in over 40 years.
Manufacturing capacity
Currently the factory is capable of processing 13,000 kgs of green leaf per day. With the incorporation of an additional drier and 10 trough chambers, the factory will be able to process 26,000 kgs of green leaf per day.
As in the past, the factory will manufacture black tea for which the factory was well known and reputed for. It is the goal of the management of Watawala Plantations to revive the glory and fame of the Waltrim Mark by making it the best tea manufacturing facility in Sri Lanka. It also has the potential to become the best in Asia in the near future. The first stock of Waltrim tea from this new facility was sold at the Colombo Auctions on June 2 2010.
The entire facility has been designed with a fireproof system where, unlike in a traditional factory, all walls and floors have been built in concrete, thus avoiding wooden floors. The machinery for the factory was procured with special specifications to ensure that it meets all food safety requirements. The entire manufacturing process has been automated through the use of conveyor belts to ensure minimal physical handling.
The infrastructure and processing technologies have been designed to ensure the efficient use of energy. The factory design and location permits natural air flow and ventilation which helps in improving the withering operation and also allows natural withering throughout the year for the manufacture of tea. This also greatly reduces the use of electrical ventilation systems currently used by many factories. From the transparent sheet in the loft to bring in natural lighting, to the use of energy efficient motors for all equipment, care has been taken to ensure that environmental and ecological concerns are also addressed.
Leaf weighing is done with a weigh bridge that reduces the leaf handling which greatly reduces the damaged green leaf count. A mono-rail system that carries the leaf to the troughs also reduces the leaf handling operation which abour requirement and subsequent monetary benefits. Leaves are always transported in leaf crates and an effective transportation system fitted with racks to damage also enhances the product quality.
The troughs have been made with fibre glass; unbreakable food grade quality not seen anywhere else and have been aerodynamically designed with energy efficient fans. The hot air system has been designed to avoid the contamination of troughs by smoke or excessive hot air that are liable to cause damage to the green leaf thus adversely affecting product quality. Withered leaf shifters are fitted with 15,000 gauge magnets for the extraction of metal as well as for the removal of grit and sand from the leaf.
The entire operation commencing from charging withered leaves to the rolling room have been automated in order to ensure consistency, high quality and a safe end-product. Wooden pieces coming in contact with tea are avoided and all other possible hygienic practices have been adopted in order to ensure a quality end-product. Automation also spillage at all stages of processing in the factory.
The entire factory floor is done in terrazzo in order to provide an effective drainage system and to avoid the stagnation of factory waste inside the factory premises. Storm water collection is done with an effective drainage system and the waste water is collected into two large soakage tanks in order to comply with environmental requirements. The water used in the factory is stored in a deep well and the water is then tested for impurities prior to its use.
The heater (boiler) which provides hot air to the drier and to the troughs is located outside the factory and this avoids the contamination of tea with smoke.
A specially designed observation deck within the factory enables visitors to view the entire manufacturing process from this observation area itself. Most of the partitions inside the factory complex are made of transparent material such as tempered glass.
Separate worker rooms for male and females equipped with all amenities are in place. The rooms come with lockers for storing their factory uniforms as they are not allowed to be taken away with them in order to avoid any possible contamination. The restrooms are outfitted with toilets and separate washing and shower areas as well as a cafeteria. Hot water facilities are also provided in the restroom area for the comfort of the partners in the Waltrim tea business.
In order to ensure the fulfillment of hygienic requirements, the workers are expected to wash their hands and also walk along footpaths, specially set aside for this purpose, to the tea processing facility. This avoids contamination by sand or grit and also any other possible biological or chemical contamination. It is known that people often understand that they should wash their hands before processing a food or beverage related product but this knowledge isn't always translated into a habitual behaviour. Understanding and implementing motivation that brings about habit forming is the first step to improving hygiene behaviour.
The safety and occupational health of workers is an area that receives high priority at Waltrim. The approach involves the joint participation of employers and workers to deal with practical problems related with occupational hazards within the factory in a flexible manner. It is an accepted practice to train all new workers and re-train existing employees on general principles of safety and health at work, as well as the specific risks involved with every job they do
Finally, as transparency too is a part of effective management, every stage of leaf processing, grading and documentation are done in a transparent manner in the factory area. The policy of infusing motivation among workers by providing opportunity for the tea pluckers to observe their produce being processed inside the factory complex is commendable.
Black Tea processing
The unit operations in black tea processing consist of withering, rolling, roll breaking, fermentation, firing/drying, grading and packing.
Sri Lanka produces mostly orthodox teas with some unique characteristics. This grade of tea is produced from green leaf and the process of converting green leaf into these grades, which evince buyer interest in the market, commences immediately after the plucked shoot leaves the bush. The grade mix and the style of well-made grades are influenced by the standard of raw material and also by the process variables in the unit operations of withering, rolling, roll breaking, fermentation, drying and grading. The orthodox teas are produced to meet the market requirements that change with supply and demand.
The orthodox process is a batch process and therefore worker availability and productivity both play an important role. Arising from the worker shortage in recent times, the focus is now on automation of the processing so as to the over-dependence on workers. Constrains such as unavailability of required workforce and obtaining good leaf are normally faced by the processing staff, which often makes it difficult for them to make the teas according to the market requirement. Furthermore, they are also expected to maintain a higher main grade percentage, higher net outturn, lower refuse tea percentage and cost of manufacture. Therefore the automation of tea processing is expected, to a great extent, to overcome most of these problems.
In conclusion, Waltrim has taken the path no one has walked before and many will want to follow. Doubtless there would be others who would follow the Waltrim lead and identify themselves as moving into the realm of technological innovation and the manager of Waltrim, M.S.A. Akber and the factory officer M. Paramasivam should be commended for their dedication and innovation.

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