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.
Today I sit down with one of the most inspiring food makers I’ve met in the last year: Miguel Valenzuela. Born in Mexico before immigrating to the United States, he spent most of his time traveling across the country (his father was in the military). “Throughout my life,” he says, “I was always finding ways to make things from the items I had: paper, scissors, glue, etc. We weren’t poor, but, many times, I found myself wanting more tools to make things. Because I didn’t, I was forced to create my own solutions and explore different angles to solving problems. I eventually developed a fondness for food and technology after visiting the engineering lab at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where I came upon a prototype for a machine that cut the tops off of strawberries using sharp blades and pneumatic cylinders.” It motivated him to apply to an Agricultural Engineering Program, where he dove into combining food and the act of making.
Miguel, tell us more about Pancake bot. When did you realise you had a valuable idea?
I was reading Make: magazine Volume 2, and my daughter Lily asked me what I was doing. I told her I was reading about a guy named Adrian Marshall who created a Pancake Stamping machine out of Lego. I mumbled something else and Lily’s eyes got huge and she turned to her sister Maia and yelled, “Maia! Papa’s going to build a ‘pamcake’ machine out of Lego!” (Yes, pamcake, not pancake). Maia did a little dance, and thus PancakeBot was born.
When did you actually realise it might work?
I never doubted that the machine itself would work, but I wasn’t sure whether or not it would work if it was made out of Legos. I wanted to emulate a ketchup bottle with Lego. Ketchup bottles don’t have valves on the bottom of them, but they are able to control flow. So the challenge was figuring out how I could control flow with just Legos. After four months, I was able to build a way to stop the batter flow by using a combination of Lego pneumatic cylinders and valves. It was awesome!
So, tell us more about your PancakeBot!
In reality, PancakeBot is more than a CNC machine that drops batter on a griddle, it is the culmination of many things: child inspiration, self-placed limits, and a drive to keep moving forward in the eyes of people that constantly were negative about what this could do. For myself and my family, PancakeBot is a gateway into technology and humanity by creating a machine that can create something you can eat. It is a quirky idea that allows people to learn how the technology behind 3D printing works without breaking the bank. It is a piece of technology that can be used by entrepreneurs everywhere to provide a customised treat for their customers. It is a child of the Maker Movement and a product of the inspiration and the energy that gives us the ability to create what we want.
It’s a smile and a giggle and it’s a wide eyed child realising that their ideas can be created.
How did you get to your first prototype?
The original machine was made out of Lego and went through about 13 different iterations over a 7 month period or so.
With every iteration, I first had to figure out how to make Lego move using the Lego NXT brick. I then had to figure out how to import external files to minimize coding. Third, figure out how to control the flow of batter using just Lego bricks. Eventually, I’d start over again and refine the design.
What was a crucial step to bringing your Lego prototype to shelves?
In order to take PancakeBot to the next level, I actually had to create one from non Lego parts. This required learning 3D modeling, using a laser cutter, programming microcontrollers, creating a software program for the user to draw and output coordinates for the robot to read, and pushing everything out to the world after deciding which things, if any, should be protected.
What drove you to start this project and, more important, what helped you get through the difficult moments?
Well, inspiration followed by inaction eventually leads to regret. When I was a kid, I had lots of ideas, but technology wasn’t as accessible and it was difficult to find mentors where I lived. So I told myself long ago, when my daughter Lily was born, that I would do my best to help her realise her ideas if she ever had any. I apply this to my other daughters too. So that is what gave me the drive. Also, another factor was just the smiles and giggles the bot got when demonstrated at Maker Faires around the world.
As for dropping the bot, well, it was dropped many times. You see, you have to know when to quit, but quitting is different than giving up. Quitting allows you to just stop, put things down, and let your brain take a break. Then, by some crazy reason, you pick it up again and the solution that was not there before is finally revealed. Sometimes not thinking is better than thinking.
How can other makers use your product? And do you have any advice for aspiring makers?
The software and firmware are both open source. You can find both on GitHub. We are looking to make the hardware open as well, but we’re still going through the logistics. The bot uses a MicroChip (once Atmel) chip in side of it that is used in the Arduino Mega.
In terms of advice, first of all, I’d say that just because something sounds crazy, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Second, listen to children, as they are a gateway to the universe. And that means listening to your inner child as well!