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Developing A New Pasta

Essential Product Development Lessons for the Chemical Industry
Industry Matters Newsletter
 Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee
Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee

Every product development story starts with an inspiration, an observation something can be improved, that there is an unmet need. The story of cascatelli, a new pasta shape begins with recognizing spaghetti sucks. The surface area of spaghetti noodles is low relative to the volume of the noodles. Sauce simply cannot adhere well. The mouth feel of the noodles suffers. There isn’t much noodle to resist your bite. Believing there was a better way powered Dan Pashman’s quest to develop and commercialize a new pasta shape. 

The cascatelli story is a story worth hearing for anyone doing development and scale-up in chemicals and materials. Creating a new pasta addresses a market where incumbents exist, as is most commonly the case with chemicals and materials. Scale loomed large, as is commonly the case with chemicals and materials. It is a story documented in an interesting series of audio podcasts. The story of cascatelli describes many of the common challenges and many of the characters inhabiting many new product development stories. 

Cascatelli Pasta

Dan, the passionate inventor in this story, does a very smart thing. Before trying to invent an improvement to spaghetti, he delves into the competitive landscape. Even smarter, as he evaluates the competition, he develops three unambiguous metrics to guide comparison. Forkability, sauceability and toothsinkability form the basis for assessing the competitive landscape and, ultimately, to guide invention. Forkability is a measure of the ease of getting the pasta shape onto a fork and keeping it there. Sauceability measures how the shape retains sauce. Measuring how satisfying the pasta is to sink your teeth into is toothsinkability.  

 Three unambiguous metrics used to improve pasta: Forkability, sauceability and toothsinkability

Study of competing pasta shapes convinces Dan he’s onto something. The reason there are so many pasta shapes is the incumbent shapes all are deficient when measured against the metrics. Three clear metrics enable systematic comparison of existing pasta shapes. The metrics are also amazingly useful in describing the unmet need in a clear and unambiguous way, important for recruitment of others to the quest. 

Testing the idea with experts is where Dan smartly heads next. It is during this phase a common character in product development stories emerges, the nay-sayer. He approaches experts at the Durum Wheat Quality and Pasta Processing Laboratory, also known as The Pasta Lab, at North Dakota State University in Fargo. They question the quest. Maureen Fant, a pasta historian, said she would not encourage anyone to invent a new pasta shape. Chris Maldari, Vice President at D. Maldari & Sons, one of the largest manufacturers of pasta dies, pulls no punches. He illuminates challenges in not only coming up with an improved shape, but also in the cost and complexity of getting it made. “I can’t tell you that you’re going to get anywhere with this idea” Chris tells Dan.   

Dan, true to the passionate inventor archetype, refuses to take no for an answer. He finds a way. The die gets made and, after some adjustments, is able to make exactly the shape Dan desires, long noodles with a thicker region at the center delivering forkability and toothsinkability. Sauce clings to frilly edges to deliver saucability.  

Die in hand, Dan now faced the challenge of scale-up. Early in my career, I was taught this adage about scale-up: Good, fast or cheap. Pick no more than two. It is recognition trade-offs are inevitable.  Dan desired to make a long, flat pasta. Technical challenges force reconsidering the shape due to economics. Problems boxing long frilly pasta means large boxes and high cost. Dan pivots to a short pasta. He compromises.  

Scaling production is part of the story I found particularly illuminating. I’ve spent countless hours describing the impact of scale in chemical production. The importance of scale in pasta wasn’t immediately evident to me, but economics and consolidation drove pasta production to larger and larger scales. Dan first encountered consolidation with the pasta die. D. Maldari & Sons joined up with De Mari Pasta Dies, their major competitor, in 2018. There was only one choice for die production, thanks to consolidation. Scale drove consolidation in pasta production. 

Pasta seems like something where scale wouldn’t matter, small local producers should be viable. Small, regional pasta makers were bought up and shut down as larger and larger factories gained economies of scale, benefitting from improved production and supply chain economics. A typical pasta train is over 85 million pounds per year, 10,000 pounds per hour. Lines of that scale just can’t economically shift to make the total 5,000 pound run Dan desired. Scale and consolidation impact other commodity food items. BreadEggsMilk. All are seeing the number of production facilities decrease even as the overall markets increase. Exactly the trends seen in chemicals.  

Dan’s identification of a compelling need, evaluation of competing technology, consultation with experts, and willingness to collaborate is a great roadmap for product development. The characters who populate his story are common to many product development stories. The technical expert curmudgeon that turns into a champion, the technical enabler, and, of course, the passionate inventor. He unexpectedly encountered something quite common in the chemical industry, the challenge of scale. In overcoming scale-up and other obstacles, the story of cascatelli is one worth hearing for anyone doing development in chemicals and materials.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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