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The Scoop on Keeping an Ice Cream Factory Cool

This control systems engineer maintains Unilever’s ice cream innovation center

4 min read

Photo of a man in a jacket standing in front of a device.

Patryk Borkowski is a control systems engineer at a Unilever plant where new ice cream products and manufacturing technologies are developed.

Michael Cockerham

Working in an ice cream factory is a dream for anyone who enjoys the frozen dessert. For control systems engineer Patryk Borkowski, a job at the biggest ice cream company in the world is also a great way to put his automation expertise to use.

Patryk Borkowski

Employer:

Unilever, Colworth Science Park, in Sharnbrook, England

Occupation:

Control systems engineer

Education:

Bachelor’s degree in automation and robotics from the West Pomeranian University of Technology in Szczecin, Poland

Borkowski works at the Advanced Prototype and Engineering Centre of the multinational consumer goods company Unilever. Unilever’s corporate umbrella covers such ice cream brands as Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Good Humor, Magnum, and Walls.

Borkowski maintains and updates equipment at the innovation center’s pilot plant at Colworth Science Park in Sharnbrook, England. The company’s food scientists and engineers use this small-scale factory to experiment with new ice cream formulations and novel production methods.

The reality of the job might not exactly live up to an ice cream lover’s dream. For safety reasons, eating the product in the plant is prohibited.

“You can’t just put your mouth underneath the nozzle of an ice cream machine and fill your belly,” he says.

For an engineer, though, the complex chemistry and processing required to create ice cream products make for fascinating problem-solving. Much of Borkowski’s work involves improving the environmental impact of ice cream production by cutting waste and reducing the amount of energy needed to keep products frozen.

And he loves working on a product that puts a smile on the faces of customers. “Ice cream is a deeply indulgent and happy product,” he says. “We love working to deliver a superior taste and a superior way to experience ice cream.”

Ice Cream Innovation

Borkowski joined Unilever as a control systems engineer in 2021. While he’s not allowed to discuss many of the details of his research, he says one of the projects he has worked on is a modular manufacturing line that the company uses to develop new kinds of ice cream. The setup allows pieces of equipment such as sauce baths, nitrogen baths for quickly freezing layers, and chocolate deposition systems to be seamlessly switched in and out so that food scientists can experiment and create new products.

Ice cream is a fascinating product to work on for an engineer, Borkowski says, because it’s inherently unstable. “Ice cream doesn’t want to be frozen; it pretty much wants to be melted on the floor,” he says. “We’re trying to bend the chemistry to bind all the ingredients into a semistable mixture that gives you that great taste and feeling on the tongue.”

Making Production More Sustainable

Helping design new products is just one part of Borkowski’s job. Unilever is targeting sustainability across the company, so cutting waste and improving energy efficiency are key. He recently helped develop a testing rig to simulate freezer doors being repeatedly opened and closed in shops. This helped collect temperature data that was used to design new freezers that run at higher temperatures to save electricity.

In 2022, he was temporarily transferred to one of Unilever’s ice cream factories in Hellendoorn, Netherlands, to uncover inefficiencies in the production process. He built a system that collected and collated operational data from all the factory’s machines to identify the causes of stoppages and waste.

“There’s a deep pride in knowing the machines that we’ve programmed make something that people buy and enjoy.”

It wasn’t easy. Some of the machines were older and no longer supported by their manufacturers. Also, they ran legacy code written in Dutch—a language Borkowski doesn’t speak.

Borkowski ended up reverse-engineering the machines to figure out their operating systems, then reprogrammed them to communicate with the new data-collection system. Now the data-collection system can be easily adapted to work at any Unilever factory.

Discovering a Love for Technology

As a child growing up in Stargard, Poland, Borkowski says there was little to indicate that he would become an engineer. At school, he loved writing, drawing, and learning new languages. He imagined himself having a career in the creative industries.

But in the late 1990s, his parents got a second-hand computer and a modem. He quickly discovered online communities for technology enthusiasts and began learning about programming.

Because of his growing fascination with technology, at 16, Borkowski opted to attend a technical high school, pursuing a technical diploma in electronics and learning about components, soldering, and assembly language. In 2011, he enrolled at the West Pomeranian University of Technology in Szczecin, Poland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in automation and robotics.

When he graduated in 2015, there were few opportunities in Poland to put his skills to use, so he moved to London. There, Borkowski initially worked odd jobs in warehouses and production facilities. After a brief stint as an electronic technician assembling ultrasonic scanners, he joined bakery company Brioche Pasquier in Milton Keynes, England, as an automation engineer.

This was an exciting move, Borkowski says, because he was finally doing control engineering, the discipline he’d always wanted to pursue. Part of his duties involved daily maintenance, but he also joined a team building new production lines from the ground up, linking together machinery such as mixers, industrial ovens, coolers, and packaging units. They programmed the machines so they all worked together seamlessly without human intervention.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, new projects went on hold and work slowed down, Borkowski says. There seemed to be little opportunity to advance his career at Brioche Pasquier, so he applied for the control systems job at Unilever.

“When I was briefed on the work, they told me it was all R&D and every project was different,” he says. “I thought that sounded like a challenge.”

The Importance of a Theoretical Foundation

Control engineers require a broad palette of skills in both electronics and programming, Borkowski says. Some of these can be learned on the job, he says, but a degree in subjects like automation or robotics provides an important theoretical foundation.

The biggest piece of advice he has for fledgling control engineers is to stay calm, which he admits can be difficult when a manager is pressuring you to quickly get a line back up to avoid production delays.

“Sometimes it’s better to step away and give yourself a few minutes to think before you do anything,” he says. Rushing can often result in mistakes that cause more problems in the long run.

While working in production can sometimes be stressful, “There’s a deep pride in knowing the machines that we’ve programmed make something that people buy and enjoy,” Borkowski says.

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