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My job explained: Food engineer

food engineer refrigeratorJudith Evans works in the Food Refrigeration and Process Engineering Research Centre (FRPERC) at the University of Bristol. She specialises in refrigeration and gives advice to companies on how best to chill and store their food.

What projects do you work on?

It's very wide-ranging. Here at the FRPERC we do a combination of research, teaching and working with industry.

It covers many things - improving hygiene and food safety, developing intervention processes to solve issues with safety. We also look specifically at refrigeration - designing new and better systems, and finding ways to optimise old systems to make sure they are working efficiently.

What are the main problems that companies have?

A lot of it is to do with the equipment. There are a lot of SMEs (Small Medium Enterprises) in the food industry, often chefs who have owned restaurants and want to branch out and start selling their food. One of the main issues is with equipment, as smaller companies can't afford huge refrigeration plants.

There are essentially two options: buy second-hand equipment, or create a bespoke solution of your own. If you choose to buy second-hand equipment, it won’t be designed to do the specific job you want it to do. This might not be a problem initially, but the company may run into problems later on when they want to start manufacturing twice as much food as they did to start with.

For example, let's say a small business wants to buy some refrigeration equipment. Usually they won't be able to afford to have something specially designed for them so they will buy some second-hand equipment. Unfortunately this means that it won't always meet their needs. Let's say they want to expand their company, so rather than freezing 500 pies a day they need to freeze 1000 - the equipment might not be up to the job. Their system can't cope with the new processes, so they might look for consultancy on how to improve that system.

How do you deal with these problems?

Firstly we need to get a good idea of what the problem is. We have lots of different methods of evaluating a problem. We will look at the processes - what are they making, what do they want to do with it, how much of it is being made/processed in a day?

We might do a site visit and take some measurements. We could also test some things here in the research centre. We can mathematically model systems to work out where they might be going wrong, or how efficient they are. We then find out more about the problem and give some ideas on how to solve it.

Can you give some examples of your work?

It’s really varied. We’ve worked with many different companies, and do a lot of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs). A KTP is where universities work with small businesses to share knowledge and skills.

We did a KTP with a company called Pie Minister, helping them to develop their pie production process. They started off as a very small business selling handmade pies. They grew very popular very quickly, and realised they needed to substantially increase their output without losing any of the quality of the pies. We helped them with things like quality assessment, and how to quickly cook and chill large numbers of pies without losing quality.

Another KTP, with Adande Refrigeration, meant we sent out a graduate to help Adande develop a new kind of refrigeration unit. They designed a quiet, efficient cabinet for kitchens and worked out good ways to mass manufacture it.

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