From Singapore to the USA and all around Europe, Edible Innovations profiles food makers that engage in improving the global food system at every stage, from production to distribution to eating and shopping. Join us as we explore the main trends in the industry from a maker perspective. Chiara Cecchini of Future Food Institute — an ecosystem with a strong educational core that promotes food innovation as a key tool to tackle the great challenges of the future — introduces you to the faces, stories, and experiences of food makers around the globe. Check back on Tuesdays and Thursdays for new installments.
Ben Cowden began working with metal during an undergraduate anthropology project in Cameroon in 1997, where he studied how Baka Pygmies turned worn machetes into utility knives. Since then, his passion for robotics sent him to Costa Rica, North Carolina, Tennessee, California, and, finally, Amherst, Massachusetts. In the last ten years, he’s focused more and more on cocktail mixing machines and incorporating CAD and digital tools into his practice. Amusingly enough, we met in the line for grabbing a beer at World Maker Faire New York.
Ben, can you tell us more about yourself?
During my college years, I was fascinated with tools: physical, metal tools that had become worn through years of use. I did an anthropology project in Cameroon where I learned how Baka Pygmies turned worn machetes into utility knives. When I discovered that blacksmithing is alive and kicking in the United States, I went to the John C. Campbell Folkschool in North Carolina and began forging steel. I made kitchen tools and furniture for several years, but eventually found myself wanting to tackle more complex projects. So I started tinkering with mechanics.
I entered an MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and someone showed me a video of Arthur Ganson’s machines. I was immediately driven to build interactive, sculptural machines. One thing that is fantastic about machines is that people automatically see themselves reflected in their movements, and so machines make a perfect metaphor for human activity and experience. I love that my machines are touchable and usable, and how, over time, I have been able to hop back and forth between “practical” and “sculptural.”
Great! And how did you get into cocktails?
I made my first cocktail machine in 2009 for Roboexotica, a cocktail robotics exhibition in Vienna. Yes, there is a lively underworld of cocktail roboticists! I was thrilled with the challenge of creating a device that 1) made a decent cocktail, 2) used food-grade components at all contact points, and 3) provided a spectacle for users. Since then, my original Corpse Reviver machine has been to a few dozen events, and I have made many copies of it for bars and event producers. Although it is a fairly simple machine, technically speaking, the design recalls an alchemist’s laboratory experiment from the 18th century, and the interactive nature seems to delight viewers (not to mention the fact that it produces a decent Corpse Reviver #2).
I adapted the design of the Corpse Reviver to build the Paramount Cocktail Machine, a wall-mounted device with four bottles and custom-blown glass funnels, for a private client. Then I made an entirely different sort of machine with the Dandy’s Suitcase, a Gin & Tonic machine inside a tweed case that uses a single crank to drive a trio of Scotch Yoke mechanisms. It pours the ingredients, and even delivers a sliced cucumber garnish into a waiting glass.
Wow! Tell us more about how you make your machines!
In terms of design process, I work largely in Solidworks and create models that fit the space defined by the client or the overall goal. I focus on designing around flat metal plates that can be laser- or waterjet-cut, since that process is less expensive than CNC machining. I cut, roll, bend, and weld steel stock to create the frames for my machines.
My manual lathe is perhaps the most important tool in my shop, and I use it every day to create custom parts such as bushings for linkages and tube fittings for directing ingredients through the machine. I make linkages by welding rods to shaft collars or ball joints. I use a lot of specialty hardware like bronze flanged bushings and retaining rings to hold axles and smooth out movements.
And what’s your “secrete sauce”?
The “trick” to most of my machines is that I use measured pour spouts to dispense precise quantities of liquid. Anyone can buy these pour spouts, and after doing so, the build is entirely dependent on a matter of creating a simple mechanism to tip and return the bottle. The Manhattan Project is different in that I built special counterweighted triggers to measure the liquids. I am currently playing with some other interesting ways of measuring ingredients, like manual and electronically driven peristaltic pumps. It is imperative to me that my machines are safe to consume from, so that is a major driver in my solutions.
Which are the parts of your work that our Makers can use as well?
One of the things I love about mechanics is that a person can figure it out just by looking at it. There’s no mystery, just a puzzle to solve. My machines have always had open chassis construction, so that anyone can see what is happening. I don’t usually publish my design files or part lists, but I share my process and my solutions with anyone who is interested, and am happy to share fabrication tips. I post work-in-progress pictures to Instagram, and I have published a number of Instructables as well. The only things that keep my work from being easily done by anyone, is the need for a particular skill set and access to specific tools.
Can you share your personal learnings that you consider valuable for other Makers as well?
Creating custom mechanical devices, especially out of metal, is a big challenge for makers. There are abundant resources for getting started, but it gets harder to find information for an intermediate or advanced level. Then there’s the heavy equipment and power bills. But here are a few ideas that have helped me out over the years and made me the maker I am today.
The first one: Spend time learning “traditional” hand skills. Digital tools are powerful, but they don’t replace manual skills. Knowing how to file parts to shape, how to weld, and how different materials bend are skills that take years to develop, but they help me every day. Secondly, try to get a copy of a McMaster Carr catalog (you can find them on Ebay), and read it like a book. You will learn a ton about the incredibly specific hardware items that exist that do exactly what you have been wanting to do. Thirdly, the right way is always the hard way. Cultivate patience and do it. Finally, tumbling (or vibratory finishing) is wonderful, and will turn your rough-looking sharp-edged metal parts into clean parts that are pleasant to handle and easy to finish. Tumbling cleans up welds, removes mill scale, evens out surfaces, and requires almost no labor on your part. I wrote an Instructables about tumbling if you need more info.