The story of the potato chip has great parallels with the triumphant story of American innovation. In a world with two pound computers and flat screen televisions, technological advancement is often evaluated by design sleekness. There is no denying the armies of engineers behind the development of computer and micro “chips”. But, have you ever considered how many engineers it takes to develop potato chips? At 1.7 millimeters in thickness, the potato chip is an unsung engineering wonder. The potato chip starts with its humbled roots in the rich soils of the American mid-west, and undergoes a transformation to become a culinary icon. From biological to electrical, engineers play critical roles in the agricultural and manufacturing phases of potato chip production. In each phase, engineers work together towards the goal of providing a high quality and irresistible product.
The process of growing a potato begins with a critical pre-planting phase. Large-scale farmers plant seed potatoes that have been engineered to be high yielding and disease-free. The ground is prepared by tractors that harrow, plow, roll, and create linear rows. Laser sensors are often used to keep rows of seed potatoes straight. Chemical changes are made to the soil to maintain an ideal pH level. Combines uproot the plant and the dirt around it. Steel link belts transport the potatoes and allow dirt to fall below. Next, vine choppers, shakers, and blower systems isolate the potatoes. Now, the potatoes are ready for transportation to the factory.
Engineers solve problems. They ask questions that lead to methodical solutions. Biological engineers ask questions such as, “Can the genetic makeup of a potato be altered to create a high yielding, disease and drought resistant potato?” In labs and fields, biological engineers also improve the quality and safety of foods. Chemical engineers consider, “What is the balance between the benefit of using fertilizers and making sure food is safe?” Through research and development, chemical engineers have improved the longevity, resilience, taste, and nutritional value of potatoes. Mechanical engineers ask, “How can we use machines to make the process more efficient?” Mechanical engineers design equipment that increases productivity, while decreasing cost. From the lab to the truck, engineers work to improve the agricultural process.
The manufacturing process moves potatoes through specific stages of production. Upon arrival, the potatoes are placed on conveyer belts, washed, inspected, and transferred to an automatic peeling machine. Next, three retracting drums cut the potatoes. Then, the potatoes are transferred to independent fryer modules, which are connected to one unified frying system. The oil flow, frying time, temperature, and seasonings are connected to computers and customized to a specific recipe. A mesh belt removes the chips from the fryers, allowing the oil to drain and chips to cool. Next, chips are conveyed to an optical sorter that identifies burnt chips and removes them with air puffs. A central processing unit communicates with another machine to ensure that the correct amount of chips are inputted into each bag. In a two-millisecond cycle, robotic arms melt adhesives onto the bags and seal them shut. Finally, bags are transferred into a box for shipment.
Numerous engineers are involved in the manufacturing process. Manufacturing engineers develop and implement the assembly line process from beginning to end. Manufacturing engineers continually ask, “How can we make a tastier chip at a lower cost?” Mechanical engineers design and build the machines for the production line. They ask, “How can we build machines with a higher mechanical advantage?” With automated assembly lines, electrical and computer engineers has become invaluable. Computer systems are the brains behind the manufacturing process. Therefore, electrical and computer engineers consider questions such as, “How can we design and implement integrated systems?” In addition, these engineers include robotics and optics into the manufacturing process. Logistical engineers consider product demand and inquire, “Where is the ideal location for our factories?” They are responsible for the accurate and efficient distribution of products.
Engineers have played a leading role in the story of the potato chip. They ask questions and seek methodical solutions. Teams of engineers have created a highly technical process, which has nurtured the metamorphosis of an ordinary potato into a bounty of flavorful options at your local grocery store. Just imagine what the next generation of engineer girls will do to improve the legendary potato chip.