Every day around 10 million bottles of some of our most recognised brands, including Dove, Lux and Clear, are manufactured at our Hefei Industrial Park factory in China.

It’s our largest production facility in the world, exporting Unilever brands to more than 14 countries. And this month, it achieved yet another accolade when the World Economic Forum (WEF), in conjunction with global management consultancy McKinsey & Company, formally recognised the site as an ‘Advanced Fourth Industrial Revolution Lighthouse’.

A lighthouse providing guidance to others

This recognition sees Hefei joining a group of 54 other pioneering factories – including our Dubai Personal Care Factory – that are considered the most digitally advanced manufacturers in the world.

Every member of the Lighthouse network serves as an example of digital best practice, providing guidance – to this generation of manufacturers and the next – on the efficiencies and deliverables that can be achieved through the use of advanced manufacturing technologies.

“This achievement is a reflection of the significant progress we have been making in our ambition to become a fully responsive, data-driven, agile and consumer-centric supply chain,” says Marc Engel, Chief Supply Chain Officer.

Hefei Industrial Park in China

Hefei is Unilever’s largest production facility in the world, manufacturing 10 million bottles of brands like Dove, Lux and Clear every day.

Creating a digital, agile, customer-centric supply chain

The agility of Hefei and China Supply Chain teams was a key element recognised by WEF. A core skill at the best of times, it proved business-critical during Covid-19. It saw the process of the digital transformation – that began at the site three years previously – accelerated significantly to ensure staff safety and meet emerging consumer needs.

At the peak of the pandemic, the team deployed flexible automation and made use of digital and AI across the production process to meet increasing demand. Production lines were re-engineered and Hefei’s machine operators were trained and upskilled online in digital tools. This enabled them to run the site’s production lines through remote interfaces from their own homes.

Digital performance management measures were also put in place to monitor productivity, enable timely and digital interventions, and ensure quality control. All of which resulted in a workforce who were safer, more efficient and able to improve daily production volumes by 10% – even during Covid-19.

Pinpointing waste and efficiencies

Nimbleness and production efficiencies were not the only benefits. The site’s digital end-to-end ecosystem is also helping the team more accurately understand waste, including wasted energy. For example, Hefei now uses recycled residual heat to help power the factory, a measure which has reduced its overall steam consumption by 93%.

“I’m very proud of our site team’s dedication and adaptiveness. They have worked at incredible speed to make this digital transformation possible,” says Yong-mei Ma.

“Through our global digital transformation, we have been able to upskill thousands of people across Unilever, and significantly contribute to our environmental sustainability commitments through improved efficiency and reduced waste,” adds Marc Engel.

A world where consumers increasingly want faster, customised, personalised products requires a supply chain that is designed accordingly.

By embedding end-to-end connectivity and leveraging digital tools to upskill and augment worker capabilities, Hefei has delivered considerable efficiencies. As a member of WEF’s Global Lighthouse Network, it is also lighting the way for the next generation of manufacturers on how to achieve new levels of sustainability, agility, speed-to-market and productivity.

Watch Hefei’s high-tech production line in action:

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