6 October 2017

By changing one detail you can improve the whole

Alumni interview

What drives me in my job every day is that we constantly have the opportunity to do even better. By improving a detail that may not be very visible, we can change quite a lot in the end product, such as product quality or the bottom line in a large dairy production. So says Mark Knigge, who graduated as a dairy engineer in 2015 and now works as an Application Scientist and Team Manager at Chr. Hansen A/S in Hørsholm, Denmark.

Application Scientist and Team Manager at Chr. Hansen, Mark Knigge, who graduated as dairy engineer from FOOD in 2015

Why did you choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Technology?

The programme involves chemistry, which I think is very exciting – in combination with food, which I have always had a great interest in. I liked that those who were already in the programme and were tutors for us new students gave us a very warm welcome. They made me see that the dairy world was incredibly exciting. I always thought that I would do something with health and nutrition, but I quickly decided to take the dairy science and technology track.

What does your job as an Application Scientist at Chr. Hansen involve?

I am responsible for one of our cheese segments, Cheddar, i.e. for the cultures and enzymes we sell to Cheddar cheese productions around the world. Cheddar production typically takes place in England, Ireland, the United States and Australia and I am primarily in contact with our salespeople, but also our customers, who are the companies producing Cheddar cheese. If customers have a technical challenge or are experiencing different kinds of cheese production problems, it is my job to make sure we get to the bottom of it. Typical problems can be that the cheese tastes wrong, or has the wrong texture or the wrong pH. When you supply an important ingredient, which the culture is in a cheese production, it is often blamed if the production does not go to plan and we also provide advice and guidance when it is not related to the culture. It is great to be able to say that our cultures are rarely the cause of the problem.

I can imagine that the customers can be quite challenged when they contact you?

Yes, it can often be about an issue that the customer needs to be resolved quickly. Our salespeople are very skilled and can solve a lot of problems themselves, so we usually avoid the very long trips to the US and Australia. Altogether, I probably have about 30 travel days a year and if a problem is to be solved by our team, it is typically because the customer needs to have some tests done that the company does not have the ability to perform themselves. Then either I would travel to the company or we would have them send samples that we would analyse in the laboratory.

Another type of task is helping the customer optimise the process. For example, at Chr. Hansen we have helped develop a new instrument that we use to measure how the milk goes from liquid to solid form (coagulation) after adding the rennet enzyme to the milk. This means that we can put some numbers on a part of the production, where it has not previously been possible. I have visited four or five Irish dairies to measure their productions, where the instrument helps us understand why the products are slightly different from time to time, thus helping to make them more uniform. For example, the milk may vary by season, when the cows have calved, etc. The effect of our enzymes varies according to how high the protein content of the milk is. Cheese producers ultimately want a process that is as streamlined and uniform as possible so that products meet specifications. Otherwise, the cheese may have to be sold cheaper. So it is very much about helping companies optimise the process and make the products better.

You are also the Team Manager for four Cheese-Makers in your pilot plant in your Application and Technology Center – what does that job involve?

Here my role is to plan the work and make sure that my team has what they need in terms of time in the dairy and equipment so we can produce our experimental cheeses. The experiments are an important part of the development of new cultures and enzymes to be tested in, for example, yoghurt and cheese. At the moment, we are in the process of setting up a new team, which is why I am also involved in the production. One of the best things about the job is helping people develop.

Do you use what you have learned in your education every day?

Yes, I certainly do, but I was surprised at how many other skills come into play when you are in a company. I think that work is 50% academic qualifications from the study programme and 50% personal qualities. For example, it is the personal qualities that come into play when working with people from all sorts of different cultures and when you have to resolve conflicts. For example, I have an Irish colleague who has a very different culture than I am used to. It has been exciting for me to learn from these kinds of challenges and I also think these are experiences that I will be able to use down the road.

As Team Manager, Mark Knigge is also involved in the production in the pilot dairy at Chr. Hansen

My job is incredibly exciting and challenging on many levels and I quickly realised that for me it is important that the basic elements, like quality, are in place. Most businesses are commercial, so you have to earn your salary. And as a recent graduate, you can be surprised at how much the commercial takes up in everyday life. In my job, it means that you often find yourself in a dilemma over whether to do something fast relative to doing it well and it is actually something that makes the job exciting, as it requires good communication skills to convince an eager salesperson who has the customer on the other end. Another thing is that, as a dairy engineer, you have the academic and theoretical approach, but in everyday life there is often something practical that needs to be organised before you can start to talk about the more theoretical. When I started at Chr. Hansen two years ago, I would, for example, look at the effect of cultures in terms of flavour development and aroma. But before that can happen, I have to make sure that everything works in relation to the way we make cheese. Therefore, there has been another starting point, where we have begun to look at whether we might have to use a purer milk, so we are able to measure the true effect of the culture – and not the effect of the culture along with some microorganisms that were present in the milk from the beginning. Things can therefore take a little longer than you imagine from the beginning.

What do you like most about the job?

The best part is getting to geek out in a little niche – and here I mean geek in the most positive way. I see that as a very big plus. By understanding something in detail you are also equipped to improve it. What drives me every day is that we can do it even better. We can improve something that may seem a trifle, but means quite a lot in the bigger context of an industrial production. So where I am, I think we can go quite far in collaboration with our customers. Many choose us because we have a lot of input into how they can optimise their process even more and turn some buttons, making it all just a little bit sharper.