Miguel Valenzuela had just finished dinner when we started talking over Zoom. “I’m living in Norway. My sister-in-law came over with her family from Denmark. Typically when they come over, I usually make some Mexican food for them and we just found these awesome tortillas.” He explained that on a trip to Barcelona he met a Mexican man who makes nixtamal tortillas in the traditional way. He continues to buy them and share them with family and friends in Norway. “I’ve been struggling, especially being from Southern California and Northern Mexico, missing my food. I’ve been trying to make a home of it here.”
Miguel and his future wife, Runi Elisabeth Flata Steen who is from Mjøndalen, Norway, met at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California while he was finishing his engineering degree. Thirteen years ago, they moved to Oslo. “We were living in a small little apartment,” said Miguel who then had two young daughters, Lily and Maia. “I had all these Legos with me that my friend Mark Dumas had given to me. I was just trying to figure out how to stay sane because I went from a lovely San Diego sun to a meter of snow over here.”
He read the second issue of Make: magazine in which author Bob Parks in the article “Blockheads” called Lego the “ultimate prototyping tool.” Parks mentioned a person in the UK who had made a pancake-stamping machine out of Lego. As Miguel mentioned the project to his daughter Lily, she turned to her sister, Maia, and said: “Papa’s gonna build a pancake machine out of Legos.”
Prototyping in Lego
This initial project went through 13 different iterations over 6 months. Miguel’s goal was to predictably make two Mickey Mouse pancakes. That’s three blobs of batter on a griddle. The entire drawing machine was made of Legos, except the ketchup bottle that held the batter. He used Lego NXT, which could control three motors. Two of the motors controlled motion along the X and Y axes. “I didn’t know how to program very well, so I had to do everything by hand,” he said. He drew a figure on graph paper, and then input the degrees of rotation positive or negative into an Excel spreadsheet. Then he’d import it as a text file that his program read with three lines per movement. The third motor controlled the flow of the batter. “I set it up to have a strange little valve structure. I had to pump air and control the valves all with one motor, and I did it by reversing the direction of the motor.”
His canvas was a Presto griddle, about 17 by 8 inches (45 by 22 centimeters). “The squeeze bottle would go back and forth while dispensing the batter to draw, which was the equivalent of pen-up and pen-down commands. Pen up reversed the air flow and pen down added pressure to dispense it.” A lot depended on getting the viscosity of the batter right. “I think I went through 20 gallons of pancake batter trying to figure this thing out in my kitchen at home.”
He published the instructions for building a PancakeBot out of Lego on SourceForge. They are still available. “I remember telling my wife, I’m gonna see if we can put this out there.” Before releasing the instructions, he got the domain name, pancakebot.com, as well as other social media handles. “You gotta stake your claim on the internet,” he said, adding that he did it just in case it turned out to be worth something.
Initially, PancakeBot was just for fun; Miguel would later call it an “unnecessary invention.” What excited him was not just that it worked but that PancakeBot made kids smile. “My daughters were cracking up,” he said. It didn’t matter what the pancakes looked like. How much fun is a machine that can draw pancakes that you can eat? That came across in an early YouTube video he made with his two oldest daughters in 2011. Maia presses the button on the NXT controller and soon a Mickey Mouse pancake is printing out.
Word started to spread. Inventor/entrepreneur Jeri Ellsworth tweeted about his videos. Goli Mohammadi of Make: wrote about it. “We had, all of a sudden, all this attention for this crazy machine built from Legos.”
From Maker Faire to the Patent Office
Miguel and Runi brought the PancakeBot to the New York Maker Faire in 2012. “That was an amazing experience. The attention that this thing got from all the kids — they’re standing around waiting 15 to 20 minutes for little round pancakes. I guess it was the combination of pancakes, Legos, and robots.” He brought the whole family to the first Oslo Maker Faire in 2013 and he was featured on Norwegian TV, which pleased his mother-in-law.
Yet it started to bother him that PancakeBot was not taken more seriously. “I didn’t know if there was anything serious about it,” he said, thinking that maybe it was a kind of product that others might buy. In 2014, he recalls asking Runi: “What are we going to do with it? Should we give up on it?” Runi, who is an actress involved in children’s theater and a middle school teacher, remained supportive. She said to give it another try and build a new prototype.
Miguel began using components that had become more available to makers and hobbyists. He also made connections in the maker community that helped him take PancakeBot to the next level. He found new motor shields from Adafruit. Dan Royer from Marginally Clever had code for the motor shields. He started talking to Windell Oskay of Evil Mad Science Laboratories who had an Eggbot product that inspired him. Soon, his new prototype had a chassis made out of laser-cut acrylic and a redesigned pneumatic system.
In 2014, he applied to Maker Faire Bay Area and was accepted even before the prototype was really finished. Fortunately, he completed the new prototype just in time to board the plane. Unfortunately, when he unpacked the PancakeBot after the flight, he discovered that the acrylic chassis had broken.
He reached out to Oskay. “Evil Mad Scientist stepped in and they helped me laser cut the new pieces.” The response at the Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo was “phenomenal and overwhelming.” He thought it “validated the whole concept of food printing in general.”
In 2015, he got a patent on a PancakeBot: “Method and apparatus for drawing cakes,” US patent number US20160015210A1. “The way it controls the fluid pneumatically without having any mechanical elements inside of it was unique,” he explained. “I wanted to just show that you don’t need a plunger, like on a syringe,” he said.
The PancakeBot had become a little more serious for Miguel, but it was still a side project, work he did outside of his job as a design engineer.
PancakeBot Becomes a Product
Maker Faire provided a market validation for PancakeBot. People were asking Miguel when he was going to do a Kickstarter and create a product that they could buy. He recalls other makers talking about creating a Kickstarter — that was what you did with a successful prototype. Yet he never got around to doing his own Kickstarter, even though he kept thinking about it.
One day, he got a call from a new company that sought to help inventors bring products to market. The company’s CEO asked Miguel if he’d be willing to license the PancakeBot to him. “Living in Norway and knowing the market for the product was the United States, I thought this was probably the right thing to do,” said Miguel. While thinking over that decision, he got an email inviting him to participate in the White House Maker Faire in 2014.
“I actually just had to sit on the couch for a second because here’s this crazy machine that started off with Legos and a whimsical idea and now we’re getting invited to go to the White House,” he recalled. The invitation said that there was only room for Miguel. “I can’t really go by myself because this is a family thing. My wife was supporting me and she was at the Faires with me. The girls were there flipping pancakes, wearing PancakeBot T-shirts, and Lily had inspired it. I would’ve felt really bad if I would’ve gone by myself.” The organizers extended the invitation to his whole family and they all went to Washington to make pancakes for President Obama. Miguel, his wife, and his daughters were dressed as chefs for the White House event.
“That opened up even more doors for us and got us a lot of attention,” recalled Miguel. However, the success also caused a lot of stress. “If you’re not ready to take your product to market and you get all this attention, then either somebody’s gonna steal it or copy it,” he said, worried that he might miss the opportunity to have PancakeBot become a product.
In early 2015, Miguel agreed to license the product and turn over development to the new company. Work began on a new 1.0 version made in China. And finally, PancakeBot did a Kickstarter. “We were able to meet our goal of $50,000 within the first 24 hours,” said Miguel. On a visit to Kickstarter, Miguel learned that a lot of people had been asking Kickstarter where to find the PancakeBot. They told him he had lots of fans, and he was overcome with emotion.
The Kickstarter raised more than $460,000 from 2,074 backers. Miguel, Runi, Lily, and Maia appeared in the video explaining PancakeBot to potential backers, showing how to take a drawing of a rocket ship, scan the drawing and produce code that PancakeBot uses to draw with batter. PancakeBot 1.0 was delivered about 8 months after its Kickstarter was over. “The first run was 3,500 units, and 2,000 units were going to Kickstarter backers,” he explained.
As excited as Miguel was that he had finally had a real product in the hands of consumers, he learned that these consumers had a problem with PancakeBot 1.0. The original prototype had a potentiometer that allowed you to adjust the speed based on the viscosity of the batter. This was dropped from PancakeBot 1.0. “The engineers locked in the speed of the PancakeBot,” said Miguel, which meant that speed adjustments couldn’t be made — PancakeBot was very slow and frustrating. Miguel had to scramble to distribute a firmware update along with detailed instructions to all the Kickstarter backers, some of whom were frustrated at having to go through this process. “I think that took us back a little bit,” said Miguel. He also learned about other problems that users had with the machine, such as overfilling the bottle with batter and having it clog the tubes.
By 2019, a new and improved PancakeBot 2.0 had come out and it sold at retail for between $250 and $350. “We were in Bed, Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, and all these fancy stores, but a lot of them ended up in schools and in makerspaces,” said Miguel. Norwegian engineer Jan Dyre Bjerknes developed PancakePainter, a free drawing program written in Processing, that allows anyone to create new drawings and save them as G-code for the PancakeBot.
Miguel noted with interest that PancakeBot was being adapted for other uses. “A company in Houston was using it to dispense glue on CCD screens,” he said, adding that he helped them with their G-code.
Starting Over Again
In 2019, Miguel and the company that licensed PancakeBot parted ways. “In the end, they did not see or understand my vision. PancakeBot was not an appliance, it was the Easy Bake Oven of the 3D food printing world,” said Miguel. He got the rights back and took on some leftover inventory, which he’s been moving with the help of the Fab Foundation.
The basic machine works well but he thinks there could be variants for different markets. One is education, where it is used by students and teachers in the classroom. He’s now at work developing curriculum for PancakeBot. “That is really organizing activities around PancakeBot, showing what it can do,” he said. He has worked with a teacher who likes to have the kids make pancakes with geometric shapes. “The children talk about why they like the shape, how it was made,” he said. “The PancakeBot is just a small part of a bigger way of learning, but it keeps the kids interested. You can have such a quick result and then if you’re doing pancakes, you can eat it.”
The PancakeBot is still growing up, just like Lily who is now 15. Perhaps she is taking on the role of a product manager vetting new features. “PancakeBot’s a child of the Maker Movement so that’s why we have to keep supporting it,” said Miguel, speaking of this whimsical machine that became a family’s pet project and more.
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