They may not taste great, but the pancakes that Olin College of Engineering students have cooked up might be the best-looking out there.
For their final project in their Principles of Engineering class last semester, Trent Dye and three classmates created the "Pancake CNC Machine," a device that automatically "prints" pancakes onto a griddle based on images designed on a computer screen.
"You can make anything: cartoon characters, geometric shapes, a yin yang symbol," said Dye.
The entire process, from start to finish, took the four Olin students nine weeks, three iterations of the original design, and several homemade pancake batter recipes to complete. Dye and his classmates also had to produce the contraption on a shoestring budget of $250.
The course was an introduction to getting students to integrate their mechanical, electrical, and programming skills.
"We thought, 'Hey, a pancake printer has a nice intersection'" of all those elements, said Kevin Crispie, another co-inventor.
Dye came up with the idea for the Pancake CNC Machine during a brainstorming session with his three teammates. Then, by leveraging each person's expertise, they were able to build out the concept and create a working prototype in time for a demo day at Olin College, where students from the class showed off their inventions.
"We made a big pancake in the shape of a rocket," at the event, said Dye.
The device operates by shifting a condiment bottle filled with batter back and forth over a griddle using a drivetrain on a gantry structure.
The team then created a computer program that can be used to design patterns to be drawn on the griddle, which was temperature-controlled.
After consulting research about pancake art, the team conjoined two bottles to get the perfect flow of batter. The flow was regulated by an electronically-controlled valve. The result was "clean lines of batter," the team said.
The project was messy at times, Dye said.
They relied on a pump typically used in aquarium tanks to pressurize the bottle. Too much pressure caused too much batter to come out at once, while too little resulted in a "thin, wimpy stream," Dye said.
But after some adjustments and attention to detail, Dye said, they perfected the extrusion mechanism, and were able to get the batter out of the bottle at a "constant, desired rate."
All they had to do from there was flip the pancake by hand with a spatula — and add the butter and syrup.
Aaron Hoover, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Needham-based school, said Dye and his team produced a "fantastic" device that was delivered right on deadline.
"They did a really great job on the execution, and they took it to a level of finish that is fairly uncommon. And that's what makes the difference," Hoover said.
The project required a lot of attention to technical details and repeated testing. It also required a lot of eating.
"We ended up testing the batter quite a lot," said Crispie. "They aren't great pancakes. But they do look good."