Food firms across Norfolk are forging new alliances to boost the sector as part of a ground-breaking scheme to encourage innovation.

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Hethel Engineering Centre has created a new ‘innovation’ group which is looking at transforming the way firms operate by building links not only with each other, but also academics to encourage new products and developments and find ways to boost profits by working together to help reduce production and distribution costs.

Figures from New Anglia’s recent Plan for Growth demonstrate the importance of the sector, which generates more than £2.2bn for the Norfolk and Suffolk economy and accounts for more than 81,000 jobs.

As well as innovation and co-operation, the aim is to help change the perception of the sector, which is often seen as low-paid and low-skilled, with leading food firms highlighting issues faced at a special conference at Hethel tomorrow.

Representatives from firms including Frank Dale Foods, in Bunwell, and Marel, in Sprowston, near Norwich, will be among those at tomorrow’s event as well as officials from UK Trade and Investment, who will be discussing export opportunities.

The Institute for Manufacturing (Cambridge University) will highlight how it is supporting local businesses in the sector, and officials from the Norwich Research Park, the Institute for Food Research will explain how to engage with its cutting edge research to boost companies unique product selling points and increase profitability.

Jason Anderson, innovation engineer at Hethel, said: “We are just pushing the door open. Our idea from the work we have already done is to bring companies together on innovation projects and look at ways of sharing logistics – because if they are sharing a route then they may be able to share a truck.

“We are also looking at whether companies can share robotics technology, because if they can share the costs, they could be more profitable.

“The golden goal is for companies to work on developing technologies that start spin-offs from that and building a knowledge base which results in more jobs and more ‘GDP’ in the Norfolk economy.

Meanwhile, Friday will see Lotus Cars chief operating officer Aslam Farikullah carry out the ‘breaking of ground’ ceremony for a new £7.8m EU-funded low-carbon manufacturing facility at Hethel, doubling the size of the current building to 40,000sq ft as well as creating the ‘Hethel Innovation’ team to deliver a three year business support project.

He will be joined by MPs Richard Bacon and George Freeman.

Ann Steward, cabinet member for economic development at Norfolk County Council, said the extension was a vote of confidence by the authority in innovation, technology and enterprise.

“When the county council conceived and delivered this project in 2006 I don’t think anyone believed it would end up the major success it’s become,” she said.

“It is fantastic that businesses will be able to access this newly expanded incubation facility as it will provide a huge boost to allow even more businesses to develop and grow.”

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