Bitter Grounds Magazine

espresso fueled ramblings

Written by catpaw

September 13, 2020

The Pringles can, 1 patent & a new design

Pringles cans have been in the news lately so I thought I’d look up the original patent for the container. Along the way, I learned a few interesting things about the can, Pringles and their “hyperbolic paraboloid-shaped potato chips”, or as the rest of us describe it a big tube of chips.

Image of a Pringles can

The ubiquitous Pringles can – image courtesy Pringles

PACKAGING OF CHIP-TYPE SNACK FOOD PRODUCTS.

Patented Mar. 3, 1970
Filed July 29, 1966, Ser. No. 568,878
Patent #US3498798A
United States

The original Pringles can was designed before the world awoke to recycling initiatives. It’s a legacy of the notion that the world would never run out of resources. We didn’t have oceans filled with plastic waste killing off wildlife in 1966.  After years of pressure, Kellogg’s (current owners of the Pringles name) are changing the materials.

Pringles is testing a redesign using recycled paper. The current can is almost impossible to recycle. Not really the most friendly packaging when it comes to the environment. This made me curious about the original patent.

The recycling pilot project is being tested in the UK for a few weeks, using recycled paper for starters. I wondered why they aren’t just switching over to a new can all at once. Turns out, it’s more complicated than using any old materials.

Not so easy making changes to the Pringles can after all.

The original patent was filed by Fredrick J. Baur and Harold Kenneth Hawley for Procter & Gamble.  The can is composed of foil, paper board, metal and plastic. Impossible to toss into a recycling bin, unless you tear the entire tube apart. The patent was pretty cool though. I didn’t expect to see so many aspects of design to what seems to be a simple tube container.

The technology behind the Pringles can is surprising. Bauer addressed a number of marketing and packaging issues. The design had to take into consideration on how to protect fragile chips, extend shelf life and reduce space on store shelves.

Chips of uniform size and shape are stacked one upon the other in closely fitting relationship to form a stacked array, and are then placed within a rigid tubular container formed from materials which are substantially impervious to the passage of oxygen and water vapor. The ends are applied to the container to seal the same. From patent #US3498798A

Diagram from patent showing construction of Pringles can

[figure one] elevational view of a snack food package

The design addressed the issue of keeping the chips dry and preventing them from getting crushed in transportation. One aspect was the consistency of how many chips you get in each tin. It’s predictable, unlike bags. Nothing says disappointment like tearing open a bag and finding it 2/3 air and 1/3 chips. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. It’s worse when the chips are reduced to tiny flakes of crumbs. From a marketing perspective, the tube is a killer selling point. The customer will always get the same amount of perfectly formed chips.

The can overcame issues of shelf life by minimizing “the quantity of oxygen and water vapor which is packed with the product and thereby increase the shelf life of the product by excluding excess oxygen and water vapor, thereby delaying the onset of oxidative rancidity and staling” (From patent #US3498798A() without the need for excessive preservatives. Another win for the customer in terms of taste.

So the design required quite a bit of packaging components to overcome the issues. That’s why it’s not so easy to replace the tube. It had to be vacuum sealed, fit onto any shelf space, be more compact and stackable.  It took public pressure to force the company to look for ways to simplify the can and make all components recyclable.

“Hyperbolic paraboloid-shaped potato chips”, or as the rest of us describe it – a big tube of chips.

Image of a Hyperbolic paraboloid-shape

In case you don’t know what a hyperbolic paraboloid looks like. Author: Christian Amet] File:ParabHyper.png – Wikimedia Commons

Not sure if the tube came first or the patent for the chip shape. There is a second patent dealing with the manufacturing of the actual chip. Part of the patent defines the standardized shape of potato chips to fit the can. They are a “hyperbolic paraboloid”. That means it’s a curved chip made in a uniform design. In case you’re interested regular chips are parabolic cylinder.

drawing from patent showing shape of proposed pringle chips

[figure 5 6] a perspective view of one form of potato chips which may be packaged in a container of the present invention;

Yup, that’s a hyperbolic paraboloid. I had to look this up to understand what it meant. The benefit of this change is the chips are now stackable. They can easily be plopped into a protective tube and shipped.

The chips used are of non-planar shape and are first formed into the desired curved shape in a uniform manner to permit the chips to be stacked one upon the other to form a grouped array and thereby minimize the void space there between.

The chips are stacked one upon the other with corresponding surfaces similarly oriented and are then placed in a substantially rigid, tubular container which is adapted to enclose the stack of closely packed chips. After being inserted into the tubular container, the latter is sealed closed by securing one or more ends thereto. Both the tubular container and the ends are fabricated from materials which are impervious to oxygen and water vapor to prevent the entrance of additional atmospheric oxygen and water vapor into the interior of the package which would rancidify the frying fat retained by the chips and result in the chips becoming stale. From patent #US3498798A.

In other words, the chips stack uniformly into the Pringles can. And that is how one of the most successfully marketed potato chips came to be. The design and technology created a memorable shape and package.

Watch Pringles being made

It’s an interesting process, from start to finish.

Damnit! Now I want some Pringles.

Notes:

  1. Read the Pringles can patent here: US3498798A – Packaging of chip-type snack food products – Google Patents
  2. You can read more about the pilot program Recycle Pringles Cans Not sure how long the link will be active.
  3. Learn more about how the design of the chip works at Food-science Sunday : The geometry of a Pringle (zmescience.com)
  4. Pringles testing new can design after recycling group called it the ‘number one recycling villain’ | CTV News (ctvnews.ca)

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