Rigatoni. Lasagne. Ziti. Bucatini. Rotelle. At 28 kg per person per year, Italians love their pasta, and they still reign as the top consumers of it today. But the rest of the world is aggressively playing catch up. Worldwide production nearly doubled between 1998 and 2006, from 6.4 to 11.7 million tons. Last year, dozens of high-capacity, dry pasta equipment lines were installed around the globe in countries as diverse as Hungary, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Guatemala. These lines operate 24 hours a day for weeks on end, without interruption.
Since pasta is practically in the DNA of Italians, it may come as no surprise that two Italian companies, FAVA S.p.A. and Pavan Group, own two-thirds of this rapidly expanding, $270M global market. In fact, they are practically next-door-neighbors in a region of Northern Italy with a long history and high concentration of skilled manufacturers of equipment for specific industries from pasta to packaging.
The fascinating part of the story is how these two companies, both founded before 1950, came to dominate the market through the novel application of basic engineering principles and the ability to evolve and change in order to meet the demands of an industry in transition. Consider that just 30 years ago, there were 1,000 pasta producers in Italy. That number has fallen by an order of magnitude to just 100 companies today. This consolidation has led to growing demand for bigger plants with higher capacities and equipment with shorter cycle times and higher throughput. Meanwhile, the end product must continue to meet high customer expectations.
From Small to Large Batches
Over the past 70 years, the process of making pasta has evolved dramatically from small, handmade batches of pasta cooked fresh to today's high-tech, high-throughput machines designed to pump out anywhere from 500 to 6,000 kg/h for long and short cut pasta.
"It's a convenience food that is cheap, easy to store and easy to prepare," says Luigi Fava, managing director and general manager of FAVA S.p.A, describing the reasons behind the growing market demand for dry pasta. A third-generation Fava involved in the family business, which was founded in 1937 and has sold more than 2,250 pasta lines since, he's excited about the future. "Out of almost 7 billion people in the world, less than 1 billion eat pasta today. In a way you could call it a new food," he enthuses.
At 64 years old, Fava's main Italian competitor, Pavan Group, describes itself as "the youngest" of the three major competitors (the third is a Swiss company). Dr. Luca Zocca, Pavan's corporate marketing manager, is no less upbeat about the future. "Pasta has considerable potential in large countries such as the U.S., where the per capita consumption today is just 10 kg per person per year," he says. He notes that the Atkins Diet, legendary for shunning carbs, "pretty much crippled" the U.S. market five years ago. But sales are roaring back, enough so that Barilla recently opened a plant here with a 60,000 ton capacity.
The goal of a dry pasta machine is to produce an end product with a moisture content of 12 percent, a figure mandated by legislation. At this level, the water activity is sufficiently low to guarantee no growth of microorganisms, while the finished product will retain its shape.
While on the one hand it might seem to be a fairly straightforward process, the exact thermal conditions to which the pasta is subjected during the drying phase have an impact on its structure and porosity, which in turn affects its mechanical strength and texture during cooking.
Four basic parameters influence pasta quality: Processing temperature, humidity and time, and the residual moisture gradient in the final product. As engineers seek to strike the right balance in their process to achieve the highest quality final product, drying cycles are getting more sophisticated. And here's where FAVA and Pavan have been particularly innovative in their approach.
Drying: A Complex Process
A typical, modern production line consists of five main process components a mixer/extruder, pre-dryer, dryer, cooler and packager. The pre-drying and drying sections represent the most complex and biggest chunk of the cost (around 65 percent) of these multi-million dollar machines. With inside temperatures reaching upwards of 100C (and high relative humidity), the components must be carefully engineered to sustain the thermal expansions generated by the temperature change.
Traditionally, pasta was dried at temperatures less than 50C for long periods of time 20 to 30 hours. Over the past two decades, the industry has gradually taken temperatures up to around 100C, which has had a significant impact on processing time. Current drying cycles range from five to six hours for long pasta a number everyone agrees is close to the limit.
"Drying cycles at low temperatures, at high temperatures, and at ultra-high temperatures and the advantages of each type of cycle have all been discussed for a long time," says Fava. "At the end of the 1980s, the race towards applying ultra-high temperatures and short drying cycles was being proposed as the ideal solution by some of the competitors. However, results demonstrated that top-quality pasta is not done in 'a hurry,' and there is no advantage in promoting fast drying cycles at ultra-high temperatures."
Today, Fava says, the correct drying cycle is clear to everybody.
That may be so, but engineers at the two companies have taken very different approaches to working the fundamentals of momentum, heat and mass transfer to achieve the final moisture content and optimal cycle time. They've even hired academic researchers and technical experts at institutions like the Milan University, the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Research Institute for Food and Nutrition in Rome to weigh in on the science.
Two Ways to Heat-Treat the Pasta
Zocca says that Pavan revolutionized the market 20 years ago with a patented drying process that drastically reduces drying time without altering the properties of the pasta. He says his company currently has the fastest drying cycle five hours for long cut pasta.
In its process, Pavan applies high temperature at the initial phase of the drying process, which it says blocks enzymatic activity (thereby maintaining the nutritive properties) and enhances product color. Because the high temperature quickly decreases the water content, it also reduces processing time to that magic under-six-hours figure. Low air humidity at this stage, they claim, also protects the pasta's delicate starches from swelling.
The pasta then goes through a series of alternating stages of fast-drying and stabilizing this second step essentially involves remoistening the outer layer of the pasta while holding a constant temperature. Zocca says that this process, basically annealing, eliminates any residual stresses that could lead to cracking in the final product and provides a stable product suitable for immediate packaging. To tightly control the conditions and adjust the variables in each zone and produce pasta with the desired texture and color, the drier is divided into a number of zones with independent controls for air temperature, relative humidity, heat exchanges and exhaust ports.
"Our competitive advantage is that our process allows us to take lower grade flours (than durum wheat) and obtain a finished product of higher quality than could be achieved through traditional processes," says Zocca.
FAVA's technology involves an engineered sequence of operations, which Fava says guarantees maximum drying flexibility and ease of operation. The company's website also states that the process of gradual cooling and then stabilization represents one of the most important innovations in the production of long pasta.
Rather than a series of alternating dryer and stabilizing phases, the process consists of a relatively intense pre-drying phase, followed by a quick-drying cycle of 160 minutes in which the pasta reaches a maximum temperature in a short time. It is then quickly lowered. The third and final stage is the stabilization zone, which brings the pasta to a uniform moisture content to eliminate any stresses. The entire process is tightly controlled by PLCs to produce the desired characteristics in the end product.
Continuous Innovation, Overcooked Pasta
Though they have chosen to take very different approaches in their process, both companies clearly produce a quality end product they each own a 35 percent share of the global market and have lines operating in plants all over the world. And they're not resting on their successes to maintain their dominant position in the future. Both say they are investing a lot of time, energy and resources in R&D to improve the production process and the quality of the product.
One thing about these Italians, though, they do tend to be a bit, well, snobbish when it comes to pasta: "It's overcooked all over the world," Fava insists.
Which makes one wonder why these companies are spending so much engineering time and effort ensuring that a high-quality product comes off the end of the line, if we're all just going to cook our spaghetti until it's limp.
Fava has the answer: "Even an overcooked pasta," he says, "is better than a badly made one."
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