Engineering for the Food Industry

Chair – Professor the Lord Mair CBE


  • Laura Malhi, Senior Engineer, Mondelez International
  • Guy Hart, Senior Project Engineer, Park Cakes Bakeries Limited
  • Alexandra Agg, Site Process Manager, Bournville

Lord Mair began the meeting by thanking everyone for attending and introduced the first of the distinguished speakers, Alexandra Agg, Site Process Manager, Bournville.

Alexandra Agg

Alexandra Agg is Site Process Manager for Bournville. She studied her masters in Chemical Engineering at the University of Bath and began her career in the food industry during her industrial placement in research and development with Mondelez International. She later returned to Mondelez as a Product Developer where she supported the Nordic market. In 2017, she moved to Bournville as Process Engineer and later as a Site Process Manager. She won the 2019 Food & Engineer of the Year Award.

Alexandra began by thanking Lord Mair for the invite and all for attending. She then detailed her role at Bourneville explaining how she works mainly on waste reduction and efficiency improvement within the manufacturing processes.

Alexandra then explained how many different engineers it takes to make a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate, adding that engineers are involved in every step of the food and drink supply chain. As these products require: manufacture, conveying, packaging and transporting to take them from conception to shelves. In the example of chocolate, she explained how engineers are involved in four main steps: bean processing, liquid chocolate mass making, chocolate moulding and packaging. Alexandra noted how engineers have industrialised this process.

She then explained the industrialisation of the chocolate tempering process in greater detail, and how it allows companies to meet the global chocolate demand of 7,500,000 tonnes per year, adding that countless types of engineers are required for this process. Chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, materials engineers, electrical engineers and automation engineers are all involved in this process. Alexandra ended her speech by pointing out that food manufacture is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK and almost all types of engineer are involved in the industry.

Guy Hart

Guy Hart is a Senior Project Engineer at Park Cakes. He gained a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering, later joining Pladis as a Graduate Engineer. Guy then moved to McVitie’s Manchester plant, where his projects included upgrading the Jaffa Cakes production line, installing a wrapping line and numerous environmentally sustainable initiatives.

Guy began his remarks by explaining his career path and encouraged attendees to get involved in the food industry. He continued by explaining that Park Cakes supplies Marks and Spencer with most of their own label cakes. Guy leads a team of engineers at the company that is responsible for all capital investments.

He went on to explain the issues the baking industry is facing, and how engineers are key to resolving these. He noted how the three main pressures on the industry are: the rising cost and scarcity of ingredients, rising energy costs and a skilled labour shortage. Guy focused on the last of these pressures and how engineering is directly combating it. He noted how he is currently working on automating personalised, hand piped, cake designs via a robot that replicates human movement, as there are currently simply not enough skilled workers in this area to meet consumer demand. He noted how this technology will also remove waste and human error.

Guy concluded his remarks by reiterating just how crucial engineers are to the baking industry. Process engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, project engineers are all essential to the industry going forward. He added that automation is the future of baking, but certain human touches as yet evade robots. Engineers are required to help discover these intricate, human touches in automation.

Laura Malhi

Laura Malhi is a Senior Engineer at Mondelez International. She graduated with a Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering, subsequently working for numerous multi-national corporations including Unilever and Pepsi-Co. She has helped combat many challenges in the industry, for example adjusting machinery to automatically adjust settings based on raw materials physical properties. Laura is also volunteering with the Institution of Chemical Engineers as Chairperson of the Food and Drink Group.

Laura opened by noting the importance of events such as this in helping students discover potential career paths and reiterating the amount of roles engineers can find within the food industry. She then detailed her career backstory. She pointed out that her interest in food engineering originated from her university placement, where she encountered her first food engineering challenge, where she was asked to reinvent a frying process by reducing oil content without impairing the quality of products. It was this project that caused her do undertake a PhD in formulation engineering.

She subsequently detailed some projects she has been involved in since graduating such as working on a line that produces a million products per day and designing items such as a chocolate 3D printer and control systems.

Laura then talked to attendees about the future of the industry and challenges potential food engineers might encounter in the near future. Noting how engineers might work on biodiversity, developing a virtual twin or replacing gas fire ovens. But she added that every career route is different with countless opportunities for skilled graduate engineers.

Q1 – Chi Onwurah MP

Question: My sister lives in the USA and claims that there is something in American chocolate, to do with heat, that means it doesn’t melt in the mouth properly. Is she telling the truth?

Answer – Alexandra Agg: This is true. Chocolate varies around the world depending on local ingredients and tastes.

Q2 – Jerry Brown (Teacher, Tewksbury School)

Question: With the current obesity problem in the western world, are we making too much processed food?

Answer – Guy Hart: Although I can’t answer your question directly, I can note some current trends. In baking there is a push towards more luxury, less often. Although products aren’t becoming healthier, the industry is starting to acknowledge the need to eat them less frequently.

Q3 – Rahul Mandal (Winner 2018 Great British Bake Off)

Question: Alex, once you temper the chocolate it sets really quickly, do you at Bourneville stop to clean the machine after it sets?

Answer – Alexandra Agg: Everything is continually flowing and nothing stays still for very long. The good thing about chocolate is that, if you do get anything wrong, it can be melted out and the process restarted.

Q4 – Rahul Mandal (Winner 2018 Great British Bake Off)

Question: Guy, could you use layering to help personalise the Colin the Caterpillar cakes?

Answer – Guy Hart: Colin’s face is actually made by hand at the moment. We are currently partnering with a Swiss company to automate that process. This may enable more intricate and personalised designs, although this is still in a very early trial phase.

Q5 – Mason Banks (PhD Student, King’s College London)

Question: You work for mass producing food companies, are your companies  doing enough to address the prices of products?

Answer – Alexandra Agg: Raw material prices are also rising, causing the price we are paying to escalate too. My role exists to help make food more affordable, but even big companies like Bourneville can’t absorb high material costs forever. It is a big challenge but I feel we are doing a lot to combat it. Rising costs are a universal problem.

Answer – Laura Malhi: The Food and Drink Federation has released stats saying that, for manufacturing companies, prices have gone up 22% in the last year. It is this that is causing rising food prices for customers.

Q6 – John Lavery MVO MBA (Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851)

Question: When did you know that engineering would be your calling?

Answer – Guy Hart: At the very last minute. I realised after applying for a Chemistry degree that it wasn’t what I wanted to do and converted to engineering.

Answer – Laura Malhi: I really liked the look of a university prospectus, which I read from front to back and I decided that the course was for me. After doing research before university, I realised it was a no-brainer.

Q7 – Eva MacInnes (COWI)

Question: How green is the food industry?

Answer – Laura Malhi: Across the industry we are seeing a good drive to measure the circularity of materials and emissions, allowing us to make informed decisions. There is also a lot of research going into control systems, facilitating more efficient production.

Answer – Guy Hart: In the baking industry, we are very reliant on gas and use 1960s era ovens for much of our products. We are looking at making upgrades to ensure these ovens become more energy efficient, but many baking processes require the uniqueness of a gas-fire oven. So a lot of research is needed going forward and we have some catching up to do.

Answer – Professor Ian Wilson (Cambridge): Water is also very important when it comes to the environment and sustainability, as access to clean water is limited in many other countries. It is used to drink, is used to make food and it is used for energy. Using water sustainably will become even more important as the planet’s population exceeds 8 billion people.

Q8 Jack Armstrong (Student, Kenton School)

Question: Are there any specific things you are doing to make manufacturing and engineering more sustainable within the food industry?

Answer – Alexandra Agg: I think the best way to improve sustainability is to make our processes more efficient. This will create less waste and make everything more sustainable.

Answer – Laura Malhi: Within the net zero arm of the industry, we have identified a few very important things. Measuring the environmental footprint of ingredients and materials, using water mindfully, careful temperature control and phasing out single-use plastic packaging have all been identified as important next steps.

Q9 Lucy Shannon (Teacher, St Helens & St Katherines School)

Question: What technologies do you see coming forward in the food industry?

Answer – Guy Hart: Vacuum cooling is developing in a big way in baking. This is reducing the cycle time, by extracting heat from products under very low pressures. This industry is ever-evolving and cutting edge technologies will continue to streamline processes.

Answer – Laura Malhi: The big thing here is automating processes, a lot of progress has been made but there is still a long way to go and more intelligence to be build. Collecting big data is helping us to better understand how to improve processes and efficiency.

Answer – Professor Ian Wilson: One of the big issues is waste, which is difficult to control. Technologies to help tackle this are developing, such as cheaper refrigeration.

Q10 Kayden Rodgers (Student, Kenton School)

Question: With all the automation in the industry, do you think there will be a time when the process becomes fully automated and there is no one working in the food industry?

Answer – Alexandra Agg: There will be different sorts of people in the food industry, because you still need to maintain machines and interact with them. The numbers of people in the industry may reduce overall, but I would hope that helps with food prices.

Answer – Professor Ian Wilson: Robotics can take out simpler, more mundane jobs. There will be a need for more technically skilled and more creative people.

Q11 Professor Claire Lucas (King’s College London)

Question: Based on the properties of food, what food would you use to line a car to help protect it during a crash?

Answer – Alexandra Agg: Honeycomb, something that could absorb the impact!

Answer – Professor Ian Wilson: Big bags of corn starch suspension as it is known to thicken at very high speeds!

Q12 Archie Ratcliffe (JBP)

Question: When looking at automation, what are your companies doing at a local level to ensure workforces are future-proof?

Answer – Laura Malhi: All the big multi-national companies I have worked for are active in schools and universities to teach younger people about the challenges and future of the food industry. For example, Mondelez has an active volunteering base that goes into schools to explain engineering and what the future holds.

Answer – Alexandra Agg: University degrees aren’t for everyone so we have to remember the importance in apprenticeships for training individuals up too.

Q13 Miao Guo (King’s College London)

Question: One third of global food is wasted, what have you been doing to reduce food waste?

Answer – Guy Hart: There is a big drive to move towards sustainable materials. We are changing our packaging towards sustainable materials, everything is active in terms of moving products towards sustainability.

Answer – Laura Malhi: In our company we are looking at how we can maximise our food and ensure there is little waste. One of the big things here is the early detection of pests and diseases, improving irrigation etc. We are trying to maximise production of desired materials and minimise waste simultaneously. In terms of manufacturing, materials are often reused and ones that cannot be reused are often sold on for different uses. Understanding waste is very important.

Q14 Glory Ihanzah (Student, Kenton School)

Question: Why did you go into food engineering specifically?

Answer – Alexandra Agg: Its very rewarding to be able to see the products you make on the shelves, I couldn’t get excited about more traditional chemical engineering routes such as oil and gas

Answer – Guy Hart: You can see the result of your work in supermarkets, which is very rewarding.

Answer -Laura Malhi: Very similar, I just love food.

Answer – Professor Ian Wilson: We all need to eat so there will always be a job.

Professor the Lord Mair closed discussions by thanking our distinguished speakers, excellent guests and event organisers. He drew attention to a resource sheet present on each table that attendees could take away.