Steampunk IoT Chocolate Factory
This all started with brainstorming on how to demonstrate predictive maintenance with machine learning. We needed something that would break quickly and repeatedly. I was sitting at my desk fiddling with the plastic stir sticks from Starbucks and it was turning white as I bent the plastic, then the idea came to me to use thin plastic. That evolved into using ABS 3D printer filament as a constant large supply of thin plastic that could be bent and snapped. From there I built prototypes of machines to bend and break that filament.
When it came to designing a demo for OpenWorld 2016 I decided to take that idea and expand it to tell a complete story of predictive maintenance in a factory scenario. After some thought for what would excite an audience and draw them over in a crowded space, I came up with the crazy idea of a steampunk style chocolate factory. The steampunk style would stand out in a high tech conference and the chocolate would allow us to give away chocolate which is never a bad idea to draw a crowd.
It has been demonstrated at Oracle OpenWorld 2016 and Modern Supply Chain Experience 2017 showcasing Oracle IoT Cloud Service and predictive maintenance. It was exciting to show it off at the Oracle Maker Faire, which was the first ever
The complete chocolate factory was designed and modeled in Sketchup 3D. Other than the copper wire runs that were hand bent to fit everything else was designed first in CAD.
How to get Balls back to top
We wanted balls to be continuously moving, so that meant they needed to cycle around from the top, rolling down the runs, over the bridge, and then into the base, then back up to the top and around again.
The first iteration of the design for OpenWorld had a 3ft high printed Archimedes screw to lift the balls. It worked well with hard ball bearings during testing but once the real chocolate balls arrived they proved too soft and irregular. So they would get jammed and chewed up by the screw. We did not have a chance to fix this before OpenWorld but when we had a couple of weeks to fix things before MSCE we decided to revisit this and come up with a better solution.
I did a bunch of research and came up with 2 other options that could work in the space we already had. First I tried a bucket line (inspired by watching Tony Beets’ dredge on Gold Rush). After designing and 3D printing it was clear that there was not enough room to make clean hand-offs at the top and bottom without major hardware modifications to the boxes already installed in the factory. So the second idea was to use air to blow or suck the balls up a pipe. I did some experimenting with different sources to generate the air flow. The challenge was it needed to be quiet so that it would not interfere with the people standing around and talking. I tried various size PC fans with ducting, desk fans, bathroom ceiling fans, mini vacuums and hair dryers.
So the second idea was to use air to blow or suck the balls up a pipe. I did some experimenting with different sources to generate the air flow. The challenge was that it needed to be quiet so it would not interfere with the people standing around and talking. I tried various size PC fans with ducting, desk fans, bathroom ceiling fans, mini vacuums and finally a hair dryer.
It turned out that quite a bit of static air pressure was needed to lift a ball 3ft in the air in a tube that was not that tight a fit. As the balls were irregular in shape the fit was either not very tight in the tube or they would get stuck. It turned out the hair dryer was the best by far, so the next challenge was how to make a quiet hair dryer. Firstly I took my wife’s hair dryer apart (with permission, of course) and worked out the details of the mechanism. I then CAD designed and 3D printed a new ducted fan system based on a Brushless DC motor designed for model aircraft. The nice thing about the motor was it is quiet, fast, and only $25 with speed controller. Its speed could be easily controlled by an Arduino just like any standard RC servo.
The Filament Mechanism
The chocolate factory was designed around a part that could fail on a regular basis and automatically be repaired. This turned out to be quite a challenge and I went through dozens of iterations to perfect it and make it reliable. It really pushed the limits of what could be done with basic 3D printed parts. It has many printed gears and even has 3D printed rails that bearings run in, to make linear slides. Also, all the parts were designed visually to look more complex and old-fashioned to keep with the steampunk theme. They were all printed in gold ABS plastic.