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67 Years Of Potato Chip Innovation, In 5 Animated GIFs

For more, watch our video: Secrets From A Potato Chip Factory.

Americans spend less on groceriesthan they did a few decades ago. That's partly because of new machines and technology that have made it much cheaper to produce food.

We went to the Herr's potato chip factory in Nottingham, Pa., to see some of this food-making technology in action. When Herr's first opened up in 1946, founder Jim Herr and his family made chips by hand. Here are three ways the process has changed over the years.

1. Unloading Potatoes

It used to take hours to unload a truck full of potatoes by hand. Ed Herr — Jim's son and the current president of the company — remembers dragging hundred-pound sacks into the factory. Today, the truck drives a semi-trailer full of potatoes onto a lift. The lift goes up.

And 50,000 pounds of potatoes come rolling out. The whole thing takes just 20 minutes.

2. Getting Rid Of Bad Chips

Herr's has been removing potato chips with brown or green spots for decades. Workers used to do it by hand. But now, they have the OptoSort. The OptoSort takes photos of the freshly fried chips, identifies the off-color ones, and then puffs of air shoot them off the line. The red arrow shows the rejects being blown off the line:

Good chips are flying by at the top of the frame; the rejects are getting blown onto the conveyor belt at the bottom of the frame. Here's a close-up of the action:

3. Packaging

The company used to pack chips into bags by hand. The picture below shows Mim Herr, Jim's wife and Ed's mom, packing chips. Ed says she would maybe make three bags a minute.

Mim Herr (right), with Mary Wowrer, packing chips by hand.
/ Courtesy of Herr's
Courtesy of Herr's
Mim Herr (right), with Mary Wowrer, packing chips by hand.

Today, a machine weighs and sorts chips into foil bags — at a rate of 100 bags a minute.

One final note: Ed Herr says workers whose jobs were replaced by machines (e.g., getting rid of green chips, hauling sacks of potatoes) were reassigned to other jobs, like driving trucks full of chips to stores.

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Jess Jiang
Jess Jiang is a Senior Supervising Editor for Planet Money. Previously, Jiang was a producer for NPR's podcast Rough Translation, where she helped tell deeply personal stories like the delicate friendship between a Chinese mom and the American surrogate she hires to carry her child, a civilian who marries a veteran and learns more about war than she ever imagined and a mom whose child is sure he belongs in a different culture.
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