Maker Faire New York: Lego Pancake Bot Interview

Fun & Games
Maker Faire New York: Lego Pancake Bot Interview

Folks are coming from near and far to this year’s Maker Faire New York, taking place September 29 and 30 at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. One maker, Miguel Valenzuela, is hailing all the way from Norway to share his homemade Lego Pancake Bot with the community. He’s got a great story on what inspired him, and offers some interesting insights into the maker movement in Norway and introducing kids to robotics through Lego.

1. How did your daughters Lily and Maia inspire you to make the Pancake Bot?
Since Lily and Maia were born, they’ve been inspiring me to do many things, and as they got older, they mainly inspire me to create ways to keep them off the TV! The stories that they tell and the unfiltered comments always sparks ideas and new projects. I’m constantly running around working with them trying to build stuff and keep up with the demand.

As for the Pancake Bot, it was sort of an accidental inspiration. One day for breakfast I was drawing pancakes for the girls and reading MAKE magazine Volume 02. There was an article by Bob Parks called “Blockheads” with a subhead of “Lego: The ultimate prototyping material,” that mentioned Adrian Marshall using Lego to build a pancake-stamping machine prototype. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I think I mentioned the article to Lily and the next thing I heard was, “Maia! Papa is going to make a pancake machine!” Maia screamed in excitement and both of them did some kind of dance, and the next thing I knew, I was on the hook to make the pancake bot (originally it was called a Pancake CNC but Pancake Bot sounded so much cooler). So I guess the inspiration was kind of a combination of MAKE magazine and the girls.

2. Describe your design/R+D process.
My process was more like D&F&R&D: Development, Frustration, Research, and Development. The first thing I did was run the concept through my wife Runi. Her reaction was, “Cool. Do it! Oh, can you take the trash out?” I basically started off with dumping a bunch of bricks on the table and then connecting pieces together. I had a rough sketch of the design in my head and as I progressed with the build, I would stop and improve on the design little by little. The most challenging part was figuring out to dispense the batter and also compress the air needed for batter dispensing with one motor. I only had one NXT set and so I had to work within my constraints.

There were about 5 iterations that happened for the batter-dispensing unit. Most people recommended a peristaltic pump, but even though I could control the amount, I could not get a constant flow, which would make it difficult to draw lines. Pancake viscosity was also an issue I had to consider as well as cleanability and storage. That’s why the unit is made up of two separate pieces, so I can store it away when not in use. Programming the Pancake Bot was easy with the help of the book Extreme NXT, but I still have difficulty coming up with designs because of my lack of programming skills.

One thing to note was I became determined to try to use only Lego and one NXT set. I’ve got some plans for an Arduino solution for the batter-dispensing unit but for right now, limiting myself to just Lego helps me come up with creative solutions. Also, after I saw how successful it was with my children, I figured I would want to share it with others and I wouldn’t want them to have to go out and buy two NXT sets. You still need extra parts and the LEGO pneumatics but at least you don’t need an extra NXT set.

3. What makes a good pancake design and how many shapes has the Pancake Bot perfected so far?
A good pancake design is made up by your ability to put syrup on it and eat it. For my girls, any design that bears a face or has a remote shape of some animal or dinosaur is good enough. On a detail level, though, good batter flow control, a steady stream, and the ability to stop the flow quickly really allows one to make any design. Thus far I’ve managed to perfect the mouse pancakes, big letters, stars, boxes, and of course, round pancakes. I’ve experimented with drawing dinosaurs, flowers, and airplanes, but I’m limited with designs because it’s a bit labor-intensive for me to generate the coordinates to input into the design.
I’m hoping I can find a bit of help from someone to convert SketchUp files or simple DWG files into pancakes.

4. How did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to participate?
I heard about the Maker Faire when I was at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo working on my senior thesis, a DIY toilet lift assist to help people lift themselves off a toilet using homemade PVC hydraulic cylinders. I actually showed it off at the Maker Faire in 2008. Since then, I’ve been keeping up with MAKE and have been wanting to go to the shows, but I also wanted to display a project there, not just go as a visitor. Making it to the one in New York is a bit easier since we live in Norway now. Also, I wanted to network with others about how to take the Pancake Bot to the next level, from just a Lego prototype to an actual kit you can buy, similar to the Bob Shapiro’s Egg-Bot.

5. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
Making things sort of came out of not having too much money to buy model airplanes and rockets when I was a kid. We grew up as Army brats and so I was inspired by all the flying airplanes, jets, and especially the space center at Huntsville, Alabama. I would always help my dad with fixing the cars and organizing his tools, and dreamed of being a pilot or an astronaut, and so to live out my fantasies, I would build my own contraptions. My mom also inspired me because she seemed to be able to make something out of nothing, and I loved that. I had forgotten about this, but my dad reminded me that one day he was looking for me and when he opened the garage door, he saw me sitting in a box with his welding goggles on, a broken broomstick between my legs, and making airplane sounds.

Also, visiting our family in Mexico was always an inspiration because I was always amazed at how on the farm, they could make anything out of anything. Sticks would be fishing poles, buckets would be sinks, bottle caps would be washers. It always seemed like the less one had, the more creativity was required to make something.

As for my inspirations, wow, that’s a long list, so I’ll try to narrow it down. From a celebrity standpoint it would be Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Christy McCullough, Walt Disney, Vincent Price, George Lucas, Spielberg, Steve Wosniak, Steve Jobs, President Obama, Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert, and Bill Hicks. MAKE magazine goes without saying. On a closer level, my friends Mark Dumas, an avid musician and tinkerer, Justin and Shel Rasch, who are stop-motion artists in L.A., Dr. Steven Kaminaka from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and my nephews and nieces Jazz, Raven, Ulysses, Verona, and Talon who inspired me to play again.

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6. How do you hope the combined concepts of cooking and Lego could open the doors of robotics to kids?
By combining Lego and cooking we’re taking the robotics out of the lab and into the kitchen, which gives kids an easily accessible real world scenario they can better relate to. We’ll be working with the Pancake Bot in Kongsberg to teach kids some different engineering concepts such as simple machines, coordinate systems, sensors, pneumatics, and of course, viscosity. Using that additional food element will give kids a final working product that they can enjoy. Also I feel kids from both genders will be able to relate to the cooking aspect, which could help bridge the gender gap there seems to be when it comes to robotics and kids. The funny thing is that when I tell most adults about the Pancake Bot, they laugh, but when I tell kids, their eyes open up and they say, “Wow!”

7. You work with a local after-school program in Norway. What is the program like?
The program is called the DevotekBank1 Lab and is at the public library in Kongsberg, the engineering capitol of Norway. It’s funded by Devotek and Bank 1. Hilde Johnsen heads up the group and Bjørn Nordal handles the IT portion of it. It’s basically a makerspace for kids with monthly modules for kids to learn about different science, engineering, and art-related things. It has almost everything you would ever want to build, experiment, and make things with. We recently got a 3D printer and CNC machine, so we’re really excited about that.

During the day, the focus is on programs for kids while they’re in school. Kids learn about energy, flight, rockets, boats, animation, and of course Lego robotics. On specific days, they have open labs where kids come and build or work on whatever they want after school. We’re currently scheduling an evening makerspace to allow others to be able to use the facilities, and I’ll be heading that up at least once a week, maybe twice a week. Hilde will be joining me at the Maker Faire in NYC this year.

8. Tell us about the maker movement/community in Norway.
My personal experience is that making in Norway is tough. The high cost of goods and materials combined with a good recycling program makes it difficult for makers to get their hands on lots of things and junk. Also, access to many things is limited to ordering on the web, which from my experience can take a bit longer than expected. But like I mentioned before, not having much requires more creativity to do something with.

That being said, though, I think the maker movement is just starting in Norway. I’ve gone out of my way to meet makers in Norway, from meeting Tor Einar Evju, a local artist/painter who worked with Evo Caprino and built his own studio out of an old barn, to visiting special-FX artist Steinar Kaarste. My experience has been that Norwegian makers are excited to show you around and welcome you in to see their projects. One thing to remember, though, is that Norwegians will always offer you coffee too. The other thing is that the “maker” label hasn’t really been used much in Norway, so people are just skilled craftsman, artists, etc. I recently applied to put together a Mini Maker Faire in Kongsber with the help of the Devotek Lab to see if we can bring many of these people together under one roof and see what happens.

Thanks Miguel! Come check out Miguel’s Lego Pancake Bot and hundreds of other maker-made projects at this year’s Maker Faire New York. All the information you need to attend, including buying tickets in advance, is on the site.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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