Pasta industry, all the challenges of the future

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Companies that produce pasta require plants that combine adaptability to different types of products with space optimization, ease of cleaning, management and maintenance. But let’s look at the specifics.

 In today’s context of growing global food demand, limited resources and increased environmental awareness, the integration of cutting-edge technologies has taken on a crucial role in improving pasta production efficiency in industrial settings to achieve high quality standards: From raw material selection to final distribution, every step of the process was subjected to a targeted engineering review. The objective shared by the companies is the definition of systems that can combine adaptability to products diversified by type with the optimization of space, ease of cleaning, management, and maintenance.

Automation and Robotics

Dosing and Mixing of Ingredients

In the dosing of ingredients, high-precision automatic weighing systems are used, following the introduction of recipes and a diversification of production that can also be operated remotely. Advanced load cells and control algorithms accurately adjust the amount of flour, water, and other ingredients, ensuring repeatability and consistency in recipes.

The most interesting strategies in the kneading phase are temperature control using eco-friendly refrigerants such as dry ice and automatic management of water and mixing times to avoid overheating of the dough or rheology that compromises an optimal dough consistency.

The integration of machine adaptation programs allows a real-time analysis of dough processing with automatic adjustment of parameters otherwise managed manually by the operator, optimizing energy, heat and electricity consumption, also thanks to online learning. New flour hydration systems aim for more homogeneous water management in less time, either by using centrifuges installed upstream of the extruder or by integrating a pre-mixing step with the mixing step in a single operating unit.

Formation of Pasta

Pasta-forming machines are equipped with robotic systems that perform precise movements to shape the dough into various shapes. Vision sensors are used to detect imperfections or changes in dimensions, allowing robots to make corrections in real time.

Extrusion

Modern extruders feature advanced thermal control systems that regulate temperature throughout the process with temperature sensors that constantly monitor the product as it passes through the machine, allowing dynamic adjustments. Pressure control systems ensure uniform formation, avoiding defects or variations in texture.

New dies are able to process complex shapes, expanding consumer options and enhancing the consumer’s sensory experience with versatile and creative products. In contrast to drying, the already treated mixing and extrusion are subject to fewer studies and trials due to the complexity of monitoring and the equally complex response of the process to each individual variation of the parameters involved, as well as results regarding the nutritional quality of the finished product.

Drying

Drying is considered the critical step to obtain a quality product in terms of aesthetics (colour and brilliance), technological characteristics (elasticity, toughness), sensory and commercial characteristics (longer shelf-life, preservation of nutritional values). The design of a system to manage basic parameters such as time, temperature and humidity is based on the control of ventilation and tempering and is recently oriented toward the study of starch behaviour and coagulation, digestibility of proteins and their interaction with starch, in addition to the cooking behaviour.

Critical factors are: The development of aerodynamic profiles to ensure a uniform air flow over the product; the use of analogue probes connected to the electrical resistors; a control panel capable of managing the phases according to the format to be dried and allowing the storage and monitoring of parameters; automatic exhaust fans to manage the air exchange and connected to temperature and humidity probes; a well-insulated cell to reduce energy consumption.

New projects to reduce processing times without compromising quality include the use of microwaves, possibly combined with a hot air system, which has shown encouraging results and a product resistant to baking and without cracks, and the use of vacuum drying, which allows the use of low pressures and temperatures, as well as rapid water evaporation, which provides a product with a bright colour and reduced browning and oxidation.

To date, the promising compact lines, capable of drying long pasta in 3 hours and short pasta in 2 hours, lack any solid shared data or bibliography and remain only commercial anticipations of producers rather than imminent novelties, feasible on an industrial scale. Lastly, doubts remain on the qualitative evaluation of pasta, in the absence of sound sensory analyses, in addition to instrumental ones of variations in colour, texture and firmness during cooking, and the lack of a sound bibliography on types of pasta that are not based on durum wheat semolina.

Pasta producing process, various types of pasta on conveyor belt

Digital Monitoring and Control

Real-time quality sensors

Advanced sensors implemented in pasta production provide real-time data on product quality. For example, Near-Infrared (NIR) sensors analyse the chemical composition of pasta, allowing immediate corrections during the process. Vision sensors evaluate texture and appearance, ensuring consistent visual quality.

Control Systems Based on Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence algorithms applied to digital control systems learn from historical data and automatically adjust production parameters to optimize quality. This includes adapting to changes in raw materials and dynamic management of critical production conditions, such as pasteurization and deep-freezing of fresh or pre-cooked pasta, which currently use spiral layouts for optimizing yields and spaces.

Use Of Innovative Raw Materials

When using alternative flours, such as wholemeal flours and flours based on the infamous and improperly called “old grains” and flours obtained from pulses, insects and “gluten-free” in general, the grinding machines must be able to make them suitable for use in dough. Flours recently introduced into the dough have lower technological characteristics than traditional ones in terms of firmness, viscosity, and extensibility of the dough, as the literature suggests.

Adaptive grinding management and grain cleaning and conditioning systems, where used, allow to obtain flours with precise grain size and rheological properties, ensuring an even distribution of ingredients and a desired consistency in the finished pasta, along with a lower consumption of water and energy.

The aim is to obtain flours that meet the market demand for products that bring health benefits through bioactive compounds and have a low environmental impact, also thanks to proper cultivation management. In this regard, in a state-of-the-art production line it is a priority to manage the gelatinisation of flour starch by carefully dosing the water and, subsequently, the cleaning of machines and belts where a homogeneous distribution of the product is required.

Production Adaptability

Accessories and machines for standard sizes (short and long pasta) can be implemented to meet customer demand for diversified and special products with the addition of specific cutting devices to allow the production of more complex types such as lasagna or nests using modern presses with special dies or sheeters in the first case, and nesting machines in the second, a single or double row of forming tubes with different production capacities.

Essential is the use of continuous automatic presses that allow a quick change of formats without disassembling any equipment and slowing down the cycle, and of cutting systems to obtain various types and sizes of pasta. Each phase can be controlled by computer or PLC on a general control panel.

Environmental Sustainability

The use of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can be a valuable tool for developing an eco-friendly improvement strategy. In general, it is desirable for companies to be autonomous, managing both the cultivation and the milling and production of pasta, in order to avoid the unnecessary impact of transporting raw materials.

The more efficient use of water, the use of purifiers for its recycling and allow – for example – the cultivation of micro-algae (such as Spirulina) that can be reintroduced as an ingredient in the pasta recipe, the use of renewable energy sources, the recycling of by-products or waste materials also from other processing industries, should be read within the sustainability plan desired by current European circular economy policies and also demanded by consumers in the finished product and identified in the claims.

Industry 4.0

Technologies adaptable to the pasta industry anticipate the possibility for the near future of optimizing connectivity, process monitoring by means of visors and cameras, management of traceability and energy consumption. The main topics of Industry 4.0 to be included in the scope discussed here are certainly robotics, the implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality, big data, artificial intelligence, and the already discussed adaptability of systems, which can provide predictive maintenance and automatic parameter reprogramming.

The resulting set of information could be supported by advanced imaging to test the quality and moisture of pasta in a flexible and decision-making way and by the use of an artificial neural network capable of identifying real-time product malfunctions and defects during processing, drying and packaging (Industry 5.0). A similar development concerns X-ray inspection systems, starting from raw materials to the finished product, capable of distinguishing inorganic materials and contaminants based on density and chemical composition. Interesting is the monitoring of humidity, temperature and volumes through specific sensors that allow the control of raw materials and related storage, dosing, and waste management.

A fundamental aspect to be assessed in production is undoubtedly the energy, heat, and electricity consumption: The analysis of the machines allows to view and store statistics and process data to limit unnecessary expenses and exercise real-time control over devices and parameters. In an automatic system, the processing of pasta images recorded along the processing line provides feedback on product quality, classifying possible cutting errors and cases of cracks, stickiness, and chromatic anomalies due to improper hydration or kneading and drying. Another chapter concerns integrated logistics in complete lines, which is essential for the management of raw materials and the storage of the finished product by means of block-chain technology, which guarantees traceability supported also by artificial intelligence algorithms.

Prospects

Recent advances in manufacturing technology offer better quality, sustainability, and diversity. Automation, together with precision engineering and robotics, have marked an epochal change in Industry 4 and 5.0, and will allow shapes and textures inconceivable until recently, together with types of pasta derived from a virtuous waste management and provided with better organoleptic properties, demanded by consumers who are increasingly aware and demanding of quality, sustainable and nutritious products and from companies seeking to optimize production and consumption.