The Innovation Behind the Crunch Enjoyed Around the World

01.22.15 5:00 AM ET

Back in 2011, a small group of PepsiCo innovators pioneered a remarkable new product spin on a classic snack—the potato chip—and helped launch what would soon become “the crunch enjoyed around the world.”

Today, their innovation—the deep-ridged potato chip—is sold by PepsiCo brands in more than 20 countries in a variety of flavors created by PepsiCo R&D to satisfy the local tastes of consumers. And like many of PepsiCo’s product innovations, deep-ridged chips are helping drive company growth. In fact, PepsiCo had nine of the top 50 new food and beverage product introductions across all measured U.S. retail channels in 2013, with innovation as a percentage of net revenue growing to 9 percent the same year.

Deep ridged began as a marketing project; as part of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division’s relentless pursuit of staying on top of consumer preferences. In this case, the focus was on young men—a core potato chip customer. The effort soon went beyond simple taste to a deeper understanding of how consumers interacted with products, and how texture, aroma, taste and convenience helped drive satisfaction. And what “dudes” wanted, the company realized through focus groups and consumer surveys, was a heartier chip.

This presented a challenge that was as much an engineering one as it was a culinary one. “The question was, how do we design a heartier chip, while keeping it thin?” noted Keith Barber, director at PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay North America Research and Development.

Rather than make the chips thicker, they hit upon the idea of giving snackers a more three-dimensional experience by making chips with a more pronounced corrugation pattern—with ridges twice as deep as the typical Ruffles chip. But that was easier said than done. The equipment to make chips with deeper ridges and varying angles did not exist.

Cutting blades to slice chips evenly and without cracking, and the mechanism that feeds them in proper alignment with the blade, had to be designed and developed by PepsiCo’s research and development teams. These were no small challenges. Things like the “bending stress” of a potato and “blade tip geometry” were contemplated. “They approached the problem differently and drove deep fundamental understanding of the mechanical dynamics of potato slicing,” said Kevin O’Sullivan, vice president of PepsiCo Advanced Research.

The new chip design had to be compatible with existing cooking equipment to ensure they could be made in sufficient quantities and to PepsiCo’s high-quality consumer standards. Chips also had to maintain their structural integrity during the cooking process.

The first concept chips, which were made with a slicer designed to produce french fries, cracked, compressed, and didn’t hold up well when cooked. “They were irregular, had sharp peaks and could not be used for consumer testing,” said Barber.

So instead of using the french fry slicer to create chips for consumer design testing, the team first computer modeled the chip. Then 3-D printing technology was used to create more than two-dozen optimal potato chip prototypes – with varying degrees of waviness and thickness. These chips were then tested for their design, look and feel with focus groups. Based on that feedback, the team then produced nine different prototypes using a vegetable slicer with specially designed cutting blades, and tested them with consumers. “These chips resulted in some of the highest consumer response scores that we had seen in decades,” said Barber.

To create flexibility within PepsiCo’s manufacturing global infrastructure, R&D engineers designed a new innovative blade that would fit existing manufacturing equipment and produce chips to exacting standards. New blades were designed, tested and tweaked in conjunction with our blade manufacturer; chip manufacturing equipment was modified; and chip designs, such as peak rounding to reduce compression during cooking, were optimized.


Deep-ridged potato chips sold by PepsiCo brands in more than 20 Countries

The Deep Ridged Team took a newly designed slicing blade to the Frito-Lay chip manufacturing facility in Denver, Colo., for full-scale testing and to resolve any potential remaining technical challenges. The equipment performed well and today is available exclusively for use by PepsiCo for deep-ridged potato chips.

In 2012, the new chips were rolled out as Ruffles Ultimate in the United States in the spring.

Of course, deep innovations translate into greater revenue if they can go to global markets effectively and tailor products to local tastes when doing so.

“As a global food and beverage company with consumers in virtually every corner of the world, we appreciate and understand the importance of locally relevant tastes, flavors and ingredients in the development of our snacks and beverages,” said Dr. Mehmood Khan, PepsiCo executive vice president for Research and Development and chief scientific officer. “Our focus is on the consumer. The job of R&D as innovators is to translate what consumers want into something that is real, authentic-tasting and truly locally relevant.

“The development of the deep-ridged chip produced a new chassis upon which many new flavor variations can be built by PepsiCo teams across the globe to satisfy regional taste preferences,” said Dr. Khan. “It’s the perfect intersection between our global and local focus—or ‘glo-cal’ as we call it.”

PepsiCo chefs, in the company’s worldwide network of innovation centers, are experts on regional cuisines. In their culinology kitchens, they create the gold standard for new regional flavors, which are used to produce new deep-ridged chip flavors. “Rather than recreating the wheel—or in this case, the potato chip—this approach allows us to quickly and efficiently deliver new, regionally relevant deep-ridged products to key markets.”

So the company set about bringing its deeper chips to a worldwide public.

In the fall of 2012, they were introduced to the United Kingdom under the Walkers brand, with cheddar and onion, salt and vinegar, and ready salted flavors. By the spring of 2014, the deep-ridged chips had entered 14 countries—in North America, Europe, and Asia. (In Spain, Lay’s XTRA ONDULADAS Sal potato chips was one of the most successful Spanish product innovations launched in 2013 in the consumer goods sector, according to a report published by Kantar Worldpanel, a consumer insights and research organization.)

Latin America was also chosen as a deep-ridged growth area as well. In the summer of 2014, Pepsi’s marketing teams created a large integrated campaign for Lay’s and Pepsi products, anchored by Lionel Messi, the iconic Argentina soccer star, which included deep-ridged chips. The ads helped back the entry of the chips into Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Today, the deep-ridged chips are available in more than 20 countries. Four additional countries, including China and India, plan to launch deep-ridged products in 2015. “Our success has created a tremendous demand for deep-ridged production technologies within PepsiCo regional business units,” said Dr. Khan. “The excitement for the product’s growth potential literally meant some R&D associates were jumping on planes to hand deliver the new proprietary slicers to our facilities around the world.”

Another vital way to expand the pie is to collaborate with industry partners. As part of a larger partnership struck in December 2013 with Buffalo Wild Wings, the wildly popular wings restaurant, the companies agreed that Pepsi would become the chain’s main beverage supplier and the two companies would work together to bring new products to market. As a result, Lay’s, in March 2014, introduced Ruffles Deep Ridged Classic Hot Wing flavored potato chips.

Of course, beyond tasting good, these chips are perfect for dipping in your favorite dip. They’re also platforms for helping to drive topline growth via PepsiCo’s R&D product and engineering innovation leadership and capabilities. Two U.S. patents related to the chip’s ornamental design have already been granted. Other patents are pending in the United States and other countries for cutting and slicing equipment and the chip’s texture, which takes into account its hardness ratio or crunchiness.