Some called it “the crunch enjoyed around the world.” In order to more adequately grasp consumer prefer- ences, back in 2011 PepsiCo, owner of the Frito-Lay potato chip brand, conducted market research on what core customers—in this case, young men—wanted from their potato
chips. Not surprisingly, the researchers discovered taste wasn’t
the only important attribute; texture, aroma, and convenience
also factored into the enjoyment of the snack. After a number of
consumer surveys and undoubtedly delicious research with focus
groups, it became clear that snackers desired a heartier chip. Believe it or not, that simple request turned out to be quite the engineering challenge. How could a hearty chip be designed while
still retaining a thin composition?
Frito-Lay’s answer: give snackers a more“three-dimension-al” eating experience by manufacturing chips with a more pronounced corrugated pattern—potentially, with ridges twice as
deep as then-typical Ruffles chips. It made perfect sense; deeper
ridges would surely produce a more resounding crunch and double each chip’s dip capacity. Snackers everywhere would rejoice
in crunchy delight! Unfortunately, that structural change was
easier said than done. PepsiCo did not have the equipment to
manufacture chips with deeper ridges and varying angles.
After sweeping crumbs off the market research room floor, PepsiCo’s research and development team went to work on designing
both cutting blades that could slice chips evenly without cracking
them and the mechanism feeding them in correct alignment with
the blade. In the process, concepts like“bending stress” and“blade
tip geometry”were thrown around. (Keep in mind, this is the effort
that goes into a seemingly innocuous snack.)
“They approached the problem differently and drove deep fundamental understanding of the mechanical dynamics of potato
slicing,” explained Kevin O’Sullivan, vice president of PepsiCo Advanced Research, in an“Innovation Story” on the firm’s website.
The first“concept chips” were made with a slicer intended for
French fries, but unfortunately cracked, compressed, and didn’t
hold up when cooked.“They were irregular, had sharp peaks, and
could not be used for consumer testing,” said Keith Barber, direc-
tor at PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay North America Research and Develop-
ment, in the same story.
Rather than using the slicer for consumer design testing, the
team computer modeled the chip and 3D printed over two-dozen
potato chip prototypes, which varied in waviness and thickness.
After narrowing this down to nine prototypes using a specially de-
signed vegetable slicer, the chips were consumer tested and result-
ed in some of the highest consumer response scores the company
had seen in decades. Using the vegetable slicer as a reference mod-
el, the R&D engineers designed a blade to fit Frito-Lay’s existing
manufacturing equipment, testing and tweaking it along the way
alongside optimal chip designs. The team took the newly designed
blade to Frito-Lay’s manufacturing facility for full-scale testing and
to hammer out any remaining technical challenges. The Ruffles Ul-
timate chips were finally rolled out in 2012 (and were incredibly
well-received), revolutionizing potato chip design forever.
The lesson to be learned here? An effective research and development strategy really is all that and a bag of chips.
The Current State of Medical Device R&D
The same ideas hold true for medical product development, but
with an entirely different type of crunch. Because R&D activities
don’t offer an immediate return on investment, there can often be
a money crunch—that is, the uncertainty about how much funding
to pour into R&D, and where precisely to pour it. Many stress the
importance of the earliest design stages, so should more funding
be allocated there? But a product can’t hit the market without validation and testing, so should those phases receive more funding?
What’s more, thanks to the consumer demand for quicker turnaround on new devices, there is a time crunch for R&D activities
as well. Move too slowly, and the product risks obsolescence. Move
too quickly, and the product may not garner U.S. Food and Drug
Administration approval—or worse, contain a design flaw that risks
a recall or endangers patients.
For that reason, OEMs turn to firms that provide R&D services
Research, Develop, Produce, Repeat
Medical device research and development strategy urges moderation and
Sam Brusco • Associate Editor