November 14, 2013
From additives like trans fat to GMOs, food processing is often blamed for being the unsavory scourge behind the widespread nutritional deficiencies and overall decline of the modern-day diet. But what if you were able to process your own food? Or more specifically, 3D print it?
For Lynette Kucsma, it’s more than a half-baked idea. Kucsma, the co-founder of Barcelona-based Natural Machines is betting that, given the option, you’d load only the best ingredients into her new creation, the Foodini, a kind of meal-o-matic replicator. Though the former Microsoft employee will handily admit that the device is hardly anything close to the sci-fi synthesizing technology envisioned on popular shows like “Star Trek,” it has shown to be quite masterful at quickly and efficiently arranging various raw ingredients such as dough, sauces, purees and well-grounded meat fillings into a ready-for-the-oven meal. By experimenting with several recipes, the four-person development team found that the 3D food printer is particularly adept at preparing burgers, gnocchi, ravioli, cookies, chocolate sculptures and bread sticks—foods generally made from pasty ingredients. It won’t, however, do a meatloaf since the layered process generally only works well with materials comprised of a smooth, fluid texture. (The team’s burgers, for instance, are made from beans.)
“Its function is more like food assembly, so it’s important to not confuse what it does with actual cooking,” Kucsma says. ”It’s probably most ideal for deserts or dishes with a meat or cheese paste, like ravioli. But even then it can be useful with many different kinds of food.”
Kucsma got involved with the project after she was invited at an event to try out current Natural Machines’ chief executive Emilio Sepulveda’s cake and chocolate printer. She found it intriguing, but being a health-conscious foodie, thought a better use of the technology would be to develop it further, so that it would enable people to prepare healthier meals in a manner that’s convenient, rather than resorting to having to reach for the factory-processed packaged variety.
“I’d say people would love a eat a home-cooked meal made with nothing but the freshest ingredients, but it’s a lot of work,” she says. “The dilemma is that many people feel its only worth the time and energy to whip up a big batch of something if they can continue eating the leftovers for days without getting tired of it. That’s enough so that it can deter most people from doing it.”
Take, for instance, well, ravioli. Even preparing a small serving involves rolling and cutting the dough before wrapping and sealing in the filling by hand. It’s either that or pick up a preservative-laden frozen dinner from the supermarket. So in a way, the Foodini can best be thought of as a happy medium where much of the redundant labor can be done by automation, making the process not only convenient for a simple one-and-done dinner but also a time-saver for cooking in bulk.
Kucsma emphasizes that the Foodini is unlike the type of food printing technologies often showcased to the public. Those machines, she points out, tend to be nothing more than basic garage-built contraptions merely re-purposed to work with the simplest culinary confections, such as chocolate. Whereas those raw devices often come with exposed electrical wires and moving parts, a huge contamination risk, Natural Machines’ concept is enclosed and designed to look and operate just like a common kitchen appliance. To be certified “food grade” and on par with the likes of toaster-ovens or blenders, the FDA requires that any piece of food preparation equipment comply with health and safety standards, a process, she says, the company is currently undergoing.
In redesigning a food printer from scratch, the founders wanted to ensure that their consumers identified their product more with Martha Stewart and less with MakerBot. So instead of relying on complicated operating systems such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design), the team developed specialized software and a touchscreen interface that makes inputting recipe instructions and adjusting the settings as seamless and intuitive as using tablets or smartphones. Inside, the compartments for ingredients are comprised of five capsules, which the machine is programmed to pick out one at a time to print or, more accurately, excrete in the shape of predetermined patterns. Depending on whether it’s ravioli shells or the filling that it’s printing out at the time, each soft ingredient is squeezed out at different rates of pressure and temperatures; the machine has a built-in heater to ensure certain ingredients stay at the proper consistency. And going along with the kitchen-friendly theme, cleaning and maintenance is made simple as the ingredient capsules can be tossed into the dishwasher.
The Foodini also includes Wi-Fi so that owners can receive software updates and take part in what the company envisions as an online community of enthusiasts who interact and share recipes. (I’m imagining a popular recipe series called “Five-Ingredient Meals.”) Users can sign on to view video demonstrations and recommended recipes and to access tech support. “When we re-conceptualized the 3D printer as a kitchen-friendly technology, it was important to us that it didn’t end up becoming one of those super-specialized appliances that you use once or twice a year and the rest of the time it sits in the cabinet collecting dust,” Kucsma says. ”We wanted it to be useful enough to help prepare many types of food and for people to continuing playing with that idea.”
In the meantime, the company has already begun taking pre-orders, which start at $1,366, though the staff is still in the process of testing the models and tweaking the software in preparation for a launch they’re hoping will happen by the middle of next year.
November 8, 2013
Despite it’s all-around usefulness, it’s a wonder why scissors can’t even cut straight. For a fairly, um, straightforward task, you’d have to fiddle with a ruler to outline precise measurements or go heavy-duty and get a paper cutter, otherwise known in craft circles as the guillotine.
Hungarian designer Tamás Fekete doesn’t have that problem. He used to. But that was until a homework assignment for a class at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest gave the first-year industrial design student an opportunity to take on a challenging issue that surprisingly has been neglected for thousands of years. After six months of prototyping, his invention, the Vector scissors, has come to demonstrate how applying a different approach to how scissors ergonomically work produces a beautifully minimalist solution to the longstanding problem.
“At the very beginning I realized that for a straight cut I needed to use other tools such as a paper guillotine, a cutting knife or a ruler,” he told Wired. “I asked myself, ‘Are these really the only ways for a straight cut?’”
Although scissors have undergone numerous makeovers over the years, the tool’s basic functionality hasn’t changed all that much. Most modifications can be considered nothing more than customized tweaks, done primarily as a way to turn a standard pair of criss-crossing blades into specialized tools better suited for certain professions. There’s, for instance, hair-cutting scissors, fabric-cutting shears for tailors and specialty kitchen sets. There’s even left-handed and right-handed scissors. I guess you can say the evolution of scissors has developed in more of a splintered direction, rather than a linear progression.
The principle innovation underlying Fekete’s straight-cutting Vector scissors, however, addresses a dilemma common to many scissor-necessitating crafts, whether it’s dealing with paper, fabrics or a variety of other materials. Being that any form of purely hand-guided cutting is already inherently error prone, Fekete started by looking at ways to redesign the device so that users can take advantage of the straight edges that form the surface of a square or rectangular table. The best approach, he discovered, was to re-shape the left handle so that it can rest flat atop the table, while the right handle follows the table’s edge, positioning the blades at a steady 90 degree angle. As the user cuts forward, this left handle, built thicker and wider, also works to direct paper away from the user’s fingers to prevent accidental papercuts. And to keep the blades from scratching the table, he rounded the edges where they would touch. (Unfortunately, there isn’t a version for lefties.)
The simplicity of merely rethinking how a tool is ergonomically conceived is a sharp example of how design-based solutions often triumph over whatever sophisticated technology has thrown at a problem. Currently, the only aggressively-marketed option that helps users cut in a straight line is a pair of scissors that features a mounted laser to steer the cutting action forth. Reviews from those who have used it seem to indicate that the product hasn’t exactly been a hit with the masses. And I mean really? Do we need a potential child safety hazard comprised of complicated mechanical parts, which also poses greater risk for breaking and malfunction, just to cut a straight line?
Fekete hasn’t publicly stated how he plans to bring Vector scissors to the the mass market, and, as a foreigner, he isn’t allowed to launch a Kickstarter campaign just by himself. For now, there’s only an official website that let’s people anxiously awaiting to wrap their fingers around one to sign up for future updates.
November 7, 2013
We’ve all been there. Someone, who senses that the room temperature is a bit too cold, decides to turn down the air conditioning. All of a sudden, another person in the building complains that it’s too hot. Uh-oh!
It was this all-too-common predicament playing out six months ago amongst students in an MIT engineering lab that was the genesis for the creation of a device called Wristify, a simple bracelet that’s designed to instantly allow the wearer to feel cooler or warmer by sending out alternating pulses of hot or cold to a small area of skin right beneath. As kooky as it sounds, the research team, along with other volunteers who have tried out the invention, have attested to the fact that the invention indeed works, continually creating a cooling or warming effect that lasts as long as eight hours. Judges from MIT’s annual materials-science design competition, who also tried on the device, recently awarded the team first place and a $10,000 prize.
“Buildings right now use an incredible amount of energy just in space heating and cooling. In fact, all together this makes up 16.5 percent of all U.S. primary energy consumption. We wanted to reduce that number, while maintaining individual thermal comfort,” co-inventor Sam Shames, says in press release. “We found the best way to do it was local heating and cooling of parts of the body.”
While the technology the team has developed appears quite novel, the principle behind it is fairly well documented. Physiologists have known for some time now that the body relies on surface skin on certain spots of the body to detect changes in external temperatures. These areas, called pulse points, are where blood vessels are closest to the skin and signal these sudden shifts to the brain. The neck, for instance, is a pulse point. So are your feet. And that’s why the very moment you dip into a swimming pool, it can feel freezing cold.
“Skin, especially certain parts, is extremely sensitive to changes in temperatures. Rather than being consistent, the reading can be overactive to even slight changes,” says co-inventor David Cohen-Tanugi. ”As an engineer, I’d say it’s a bad thermometer.”
So, in a sense, what the researchers came up with is a way to kind of hack the body. Instead of putting ice cubes or running cold water on your wrist, as is often suggested, the team put its inquisitive engineering minds together to develop a system that automates the cooling and warming effect through a pattern of pulses that would keep the bracelet wearer comfortable. Cohen-Tanugi compares the wave-like emanations of heat and cold pulses to walking on the beach on a hot summer day and catching a cool breeze and, right when the pleasurable sensation begins to subside, receiving another soothing puff of wind.
“What’s really great about it,” he says, “is that every time the device went off and on, people still felt surprised each time.”
It took fiddling with 15 different prototypes, comprised mostly of parts bought off Amazon, to eventually settle on a version that resembles and feels like a bulky-looking metal wristwatch. Inside, the device features a series of integrated thermometers, finely-tuned software controls and sensors to determine the optimal moments, when someone is feeling a bit too hot or cold, to send a pulse or to stop. For now, it relies on a lithium polymer battery, which lasts eight hours before needing a recharge, to power a copper alloy-based heat sink that’s capable of producing skin temperature changes of up to 0.4 degrees Celsius per second.
Having “pulses” shooting out of your wristwear might sound unnerving to some people, but Cohen-Tanugi points out that thermoelectric technology has been safely used by consumers for some time. Electric blankets, for example, produce and radiate heat using a similar process. The group at MIT isn’t the first to develop a sophisticated product that takes advantage of the “pulse points” principle. One sports apparel company, Mission Athletecare, sells towels, hoodies and other athletic gear designed with special fabric that can be dipped in water to create a “prolonged cooling effect.” And for those who are concerned that tricking the body in this manner may have some serious health consequences, Cohen-Tanugi says it works well, but not that well (nor does it have the potential to ever make heaters or air conditioners obsolete as some media outlets have reported).
“It works best in a moderate environment, like in buildings where for some people the temperature doesn’t feel quite right,” he says. “But it definitely won’t do anything for you when you’re in the Sahara desert and need water or when you’re in Alaska in the winter.”
Ultimately, the team hopes to use the prize money to put something on the market that can be worn all day and sense exactly when you need to be cooled or warmed, as well as make your wrist look good. They’re also open to the idea of integrating the technology into so-called smartwatches, which may make the most sense since this latest breed of mobile computers are being heralded as the next big thing. For now, though, Cohen-Tanugi is fine with having the nuts and bolts model to get him through the day.
“Everyone really likes the blast you get from the cooling effect, but personally I like it in warming mode,” he adds. “I’m one of those people whose hands get cold in the office.”
November 6, 2013
It’s probably fair to say that duct tape has become for repairman what baking soda is for housekeepers. Originally designed for the military, the handyman’s secret weapon has since gained a reputation for being versatile enough to fix just about anything.
Now, FiberFix, a new challenger on the block, is posing the question: “Yeah, but does ‘anything’ also include smashed shovels?”
Well, the makers of FiberFix have produced a demonstration video showing that not only can their innovative product make such heavy-duty hardware as good as new (at least functionally), it’s also advertised as being 100 times stronger than the industry leader. Being comprised of a special waterproof resin, the repair wrap also has the added benefit of being heat, cold and impact resistant.
Applying the material to a piece of equipment isn’t quite as easy as with duct tape, requiring that the user first soak the tape in water for five to ten seconds, and then use it soon after that. FiberFix starts to stiffen within the first few minutes, but it should fully set over the course of a day. The tape also comes with plastic gloves to prevent the sticky, non-toxic resin from getting on your clothes or any part of the body.
For FiberFix’s inventor, Brigham Young University student Spencer Quinn, the notion of a tape that “hardens like steel” came to mind initially during a routine doctor’s visit, when the physician relayed a story about how, instead of duct tape, he once used medical casting tape to temporarily repair his ATV. The method worked well enough to make it home. Quinn and his cousin, a mechanical engineer, then embarked on a long prototyping process that included testing as many as 50 variations. The final product, as Quinn describes, looked nothing like the medical bandages that inspired it.
“This definitely isn’t some re-purposed form of medical tape, which doesn’t bond, nor is moisture-proof,” Quinn says. “And you have no idea how difficult it was finding a resin that would bond to metal and wood.”
As for the company’s claim touting the tape’s strength, Quinn admits “100 times” was simply a catchier way to market the product since, in reality, he says FiberFix is actually even “significantly stronger.” To test their invention’s properties head-to-head with duct tape, the two used BYU’s engineering lab, where they subjected both to what’s called a three-point flexural load test, in which two pieces of wrapped galvanized steel were placed under a hydraulic press to measure how much weight they could withstand. FiberFix’s score? 2,000 pounds. Duct tape? 100.
In just a year since that unassuming doctor’s visit, FiberFix’s inventors appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank; struck a deal with Lori Greiner, one of the show’s investors, for $120,000 and 12 percent equity in the company; and placed rolls of the product in over 1,600 stores nationwide, including large retailers such as Home Depot, Ace Hardware and Lowe’s, where they are now being sold from $5.99 to $9.99, depending on the width of the tape, and in $20 3-packs. But even before a finished version finally made its way to the market, Quinn was already testing how it would be received by selling prototypes to neighbors and whoever else might find a use for it.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t put a lot of time and effort into something that wasn’t going to be in demand,” Quinn says. “The amazing thing we discovered was that its something that’s so universal; it’s people who bought it from us that taught us all the different ways it can be used.”
So far, FiberFix has been used to repair damaged hot tubs, bedposts, bar stools and leaky pipes. The company, however, is careful to warn that it won’t work on every break (so don’t throw out that roll of duct tape yet). It isn’t meant, for example, to serve as a patch since the tape’s strength is formed from being able to bond to itself, layer by layer. And even though users would be able to sand and paint over the product without compromising its integrity, the thing is almost impossible to get it off. So, don’t use it as an arm cast. Or, as Quinn explains, think of it as something that’s designed to be a long-term fix.
Eventually, Quinn says he’d like his invention to become nothing short of a household brand, to the point where instead of people telling others to “duct tape it” they’ll say “just FiberFix it.”
“After helping to market Kinesio tape for athletes during the last Olympic games, I came to realize people can develop a kind of emotional attachment to the stuff,” Quinn adds. “When they find a tape they like and can rely on—no pun intended—they end up sticking to it.”
Our observations of the natural world seem to indicate that water and fire are sworn enemies. Putting out fires, for instance, usually means dousing it with water. Except for grease fires! Meanwhile, it’s heat that causes water to evaporate. So it’s understandable why the mere existence of a blowtorch that uses water to create a scorching flame might rattle our mental cages a bit.
SafeFlame, a European Union-backed collaboration between several European technology companies, was designed as a portable alternative to conventional acetylene-based torches that have become standard equipment for welders throughout the world. The device relies instead on what’s called an electrolyzer system. Water is poured into the electrolyzer unit, where electricity is used to separate the liquid’s hydrogen and oxygen molecules, then remix and ignite them to produce a type of flame that a Euronews report describes as “cleaner,” creating only water as a byproduct.
The technology isn’t anything new. Technically called an oxy-gas torch, these devices have also been more commonly referred to over the years as a “water torch.” In fact, the Henes Manufacturing Company sold one of the earliest versions known as the “Water Welder” way back in 1969. However, as other technologies such as acetylene-fueled and arc-based welding proved to be more cost-effective and gained wider adoption by professional welders, oxyhydrogen torches were relegated to smaller niches, such as welding glass and plastics.
The researchers behind SafeFlame recently demonstrated their latest prototype on the Euronews TV show Futuris to show that the since-faded technology is not only safe, but also practical enough for heavy-duty industrial applications such as brazing, a process similar to welding except that only one of the metals (the filler) is melted. One of SafeFlame’s main advantages is that the flame is only generated outside of the torch, making the equipment cool to the touch. And unlike acetylene and propane systems, water doesn’t need to be stored in pressurized bottles, which are flammable hazards waiting to happen.
Nick Ludford, a materials scientist with collaborating partner TWI, predicts that, over time, the technology could be 20 times cheaper than what’s currently used, since it would eliminate expenses for storage, insurance and having to transport the bottles. In fact, much of the team’s work involved addressing aspects that made oxyhydrogen torches so costly, mainly the high price of certain components vital for carrying out the process.
For instance, Andrew Ellis, a research technologist with partner ITM Power, told Euronews that the team carried out extensive research on how to reduce the necessary amount of platinum, an expensive catalyst used in electrolysis, so that electrolyzer systems can be mass-produced in an affordable way.
According to the report, researchers do hope to make the SafeFlame available “in the near future,” but for now will continue testing their electrolyzer prototype with the help of welders in the United Kingdom.