Ice ice baby

Chris Seymour has a job that summer snack fans will find very cool. Ice cool... 

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When you see new ice creams with swirling, stylish patterns on top, an engineer like Chris will have helped turn the idea for the original pattern into something that can be made on a large scale, so people in sun-baked parks and gardens across the world can enjoy a sweet, chilled treat.

Chris uses engineering design ideas and works with complicated machinery to make this happen. He’s currently based in Naples, in ice-cream mad Italy. When he’s not beautifying Cornettos he likes to explore the boot-shaped country, the perfect place for food enthusiasts. We’re not jealous at all.

Name: Chris Seymour
Job: Unilever graduate trainee(currently on a six month placement as a Process Development Manager)
Studied: A-Level physics, chemistry and maths and an MEng, Chemical Engineering, Strathclyde University
Works: Caivano, Naples, Italy 

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Tell us about your job...

At the moment I’m mostly working on the visual quality of Cornetto and making things easier for the production team. My job is about improving how it looks in a small pilot plant before scaling it up to make these improvements on a global scale in a factory.

Our goal is always to improve the standard of quality of our ice cream and the best way to communicate this good quality to our consumer is to improve its visual appearance. I work on developing new processes to do this. With Cornetto it’s important to give a “ripple” effect to build a crown formation on the top of the ice cream. My work involves improving the quality of ripples in the product through different engineering design methods such as flow control, temperature analysis and pressure sensing.

There are several cheaper imitation brands on the market so we worked hard to ensure our customers can taste the difference.

Which parts of Cornetto are you working on the moment?

I’m focusing on the top part of the Cornetto that the consumer enjoys the most which we call the crown; that lovely shape at the top where we have the flute and rosetta.

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You might think that complaints are a bad thing but they’re actually great because we get to hear what our consumers think we can improve to make a better product. A couple of things we’ve focused on before were soggy wafers or improvements to the crown.

How do you make changes to an ice-cream’s appearance?

An ice-cream maker might want to make an ice-cream that looks like a character from a TV show and then it would be the engineers' job to work out how to do that. We would use a different mould or nozzle to produce the end of the ice-cream. You need to use different engineering design methods to alter the process of making different designs.

We test and tweak equipment and produce prototypes in our smaller pilot plant until we make it possible to increase the visual quality standard. We’ll send off product prototypes to marketing to see if it’s a good quality product and to make sure it fits with our brand. Then we’ll be given the go-ahead for the new product or changes to be rolled out into the factory for mass production.

How do you know what looks good?

In other areas of our business my colleagues will work with consumers to do product tests which let us know what consumers prefer, for example whether they want a clockwise or anti-clockwise swirl in the pattern. There’s always more you can do with the artwork of ice cream to make it eye-catching to different people and I work on the ground level with process development actually making it happen. Information is fed to us and we have to realise it in the factory.

There’s a lot of chemical and process engineering in Cornetto or other ice creams like Carte D’Or, where visual impact is very important. We make sure the swirl on Carte D’Or or the rosetta pattern on the top of the Cornetto looks attractive to the consumer and looks good every time when it’s mass produced.

I also spend time testing ice creams and regularly speak to operators in the factory.

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How does the traditional nature of the Cornetto ice cream affect what changes you make?

It’s a very important brand to us and the Italians so making any sort of change is dangerous because it has a huge consumer fan base and people will notice it as they did when Coca-Cola tried to make changes to their product (Coca-Cola created a new formula for their drink in 1985 and re-launched the drink as New Coke, a change that proved unpopular and was reversed 77 days later - Ed).

The average person in the UK eats six ice creams a year and if the consumer hasn’t tried Cornetto in a long time then they will notice a big change but at the same time we have to try and bring in more consumers too and improve the quality.

We like to keep our classic range because that’s one of our biggest sellers but variants and new things have been coming out recently, like Cornetto Enigma. When we do make small changes we do so after extensive consumer studies to prove that what we’re doing is correct. It’s a fine art form and a delicate process to get it right.

Is working in ice cream fun?

I wanted to be part of the ice-cream business because of the interaction with the product as an engineer. I’ve worked with tea and there’s less interaction in making it.I didn’t realise how many things were possible with ice-cream until I joined. There are so many different ranges you can produce and you get to be “hands-on” and work in the pilot plant with the equipment, setting it up and I enjoy making large-scale ice-cream production a possibility.

Also, a lot of the items you work on might not be launched for another year - you get to try these ice creams out before they ever hit the marketplace, which is interesting.

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Have you worked on any other ice creams?

I have worked a little bit with Carte D’Or and also with Magnum in my previous role - at a purely scientific level -which was a really different area. It wasn’t about artwork changes; it was more about formulation and the mix.

Where do you work?

I’m mostly in the office, analysing data, in the pilot plant and doing trials in the factory to figure out what’s going on and find out what’s going wrong with certain things in production.

What interested you about chemical engineering?

I was 17 and started looking at universities but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was interested in engineering because the sciences appeal to me and I like working with my hands and being creative.

I chose chemical engineering because I went on a day trip to one of the universities and the IChemE (Institution of Chemical Engineers) sold it to me by telling me that chemical engineering is a huge part of our lives. It’s in everything around us, from shower gel to the food products in our fridge.

What subjects did you study at school?

I studied physics, chemistry and maths, which were the subjects necessary for my course - you need good, logical subjects. I really love physics. It’s a study of how stuff works and it made me interested in doing something related to calculating what’s going on around us and how to make things work.

How useful did you find your university degree?

At Unilever there are different functions like research and development (R&D), supply chain management, financial management, marketing and customer development (sales). For R&D you need a specific and strong technical qualification in order to get onto the course such as a 2:1 degree in chemistry or chemical engineering as they are very useful for the job.

R&D has a lot of different roles and during the graduate programme you get to work in all these broad areas and you’re challenged in very different ways in the different jobs. My last position was particularly academic and scientific and I spent a lot of time researching scientific papers. That was a skill I gained at university - looking through books and scientific journals to find what I’m looking for. Where I’m working now is on the cusp of making the product happen on a large scale and I need to use more core chemical engineering skills, such as fluid dynamics, flow splitting and heat transfer,  to understand what’s happening.

How did you find out about your job?

At the end of university I looked at companies that had a graduate programme for university students because I was interested in moving up the ladder quite quickly and Unilever give you a lot of support to move from university life to working life. I was interested in the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) industry but Unilever also had a food production side of their business and I was interested in that.

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How do you find working in Italy?

I was very happy when I was told I was going to work in Naples. It’s a great opportunity to come here for a short amount of time. It’s great to put on my CV that I’ve been “making ice cream in Italy” - where ice cream originated from (although there is debate about that!)

Do you enjoy the Italian pizzas?

They’re very good. I’ve been told that pizzas came from Naples too. I went to one of the oldest and most famous here called Pizzeria da Michele which was in a [Julia Roberts] movie; Eat Pray Love. It was very small and busy but it was worth it.

What is your favourite part of the job?

This placement has been my favourite on the Unilever graduate scheme so far. It’s the most “hands-on” role that I’ve had, which is what I really wanted to do when I left university. I had summer placements as an engineer working in the oil industry (at Exxon Mobil) and working with nuclear submarines (for Babcock Marine) but I was less interested in these because they were less “hands-on”.

Oil, gas and nuclear power are more obvious routes for chemical and process engineers compared to food, which some people may not know about, but I’m glad I gave this area a shot because I’ve enjoyed working here. In the food industry you could be tasting products and testing processes, getting the opinions of the customers and giving your opinions.

What personal qualities are important for being an engineer?

You need to have good analytical skills. You can learn specific and technical things at university in an engineering degree but what you should be learning is how to analyse difficult technical problems. You need to understand what a problem is and where a problem stems from and during the course of a technical degree you develop a focus on being able to solve analytical problems.

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What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I do a lot of running and I like to stay fit – I ran a marathon last year in Berlin which really took it out of me! I’m getting a road bike and I’m hoping to train up for a triathlon this season but I need to get up to speed with swimming before I enter.

While I’ve been in Italy I’ve also been exploring the country with my bicycle and travelling with friends. I’ve visited Pompeii and Vesuvius which are nearby.Rome is only a couple of hours away.

And I’m also guessing that you enjoy the food?

I love food and cooking. Being in Italy has been great for that. A lot of people are interested in telling me their recipes for Italian dishes that can’t be found in a book.

And your favourite ice cream is…?

…Magnum White.

Related links:

Engineering at Strathclyde University

The Food and Drink Federation run a campaign about food engineering and you can visit their website at www.foodengineer.co.uk to find out more about working as an engineer in food. You can also find them on Twitter with #FoodEngineering, FacebookTumblr and YouTube.

Careers at Unilever