Startups

Automated panini- and pancake-makers from Baltimore duo on Discovery Channel

Andrew Stroup gets eliminated, but Corey Fleischer, after six episodes, still remains in the hunt for a $50,000 grand prize.

Andrew Stroup's panini-making contraption.

This is a guest post from Andrew Stroup, an entrepreneur and cast member of a new Discovery Channel show called "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius" that highlights engineering talent.

Each week, Andrew Stroup and Corey Fleischer will recap the latest episode of “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius.” Stroup and Fleischer are the two Maryland contestants competing on the new Discovery Channel show that airs Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Stroup and Fleischer hold weekly viewing parties starting at 6 p.m. at Luckie’s Tavern.
See last week’s summary here.
Episode 6 summary:
Set on the beautiful Santa Monica pier, this week the teams were challenged with delivering a fully automated machine that would take basic ingredients and cook and deliver them into a meal for the masses with only five days and $6,000 to deliver the system. This was by far one of the tougher challenges yet, but a really exciting opportunity to show real-world application.
The Wild Card came into play this week, which brought one of the eliminated contestants, chosen by the judges, back into the fold to compete for the grand prize: $50,000 and a one year contract at WET design firm. The judges, based on multiple factors, picked Dan (Gui as a close second). With the addition of the Wild Card, there were now six contestants competing for the grand prize.
To make things even more challenging, two of the three remaining contestants on the losing team would be eliminated, a piece of knowledge dropped on us without warning from the producers or judges.
At the end of the day, the BLUE team won the challenge, meaning the RED team lost, which ended with Dan and me being eliminated and Eric going on to next week.
If you missed the episode, you can watch it here.
Episode 6 in-depth coverage (for those interested in the RED Team’s design, and the behind-the-scenes “dirt”): 
STRATEGY: Usually I end with this, but I suppose it’s time to show my full hand. Up until this point I saw little incentive to ever try at the blueprint challenge as the risk/reward was not worth it if you were the runner-up AND captain of the losing team. Going into Episode 6, I made a conscious choice that it was do-or-die time to show the judges what I’m capable of as an engineer and leader. This was the moment I decided to go for broke, meaning going after the blueprint challenge and leading my team to victory. My biggest downfall was not winning the blueprint challenge and only getting runner-up. Then again, there may be more to this than what people see. So buy me a beer THIS Wednesday at Luckie’s and I’ll tell you the dirt behind dirt.
WILD CARD: I know everyone and their dog was shocked Dan was selected for the Wild Card, but I saw this coming. From my foxhole, I thought Joe was the most deserving, but he’ll even admit that he didn’t do a good-enough job making his case to the judges. Right before they chose Dan, they talked about Gui and Dan as the two “finalists” for the Wild Card. In my opinion, they were the two that had the best redemption stories and the most to prove by coming back. Gui had two awesome designs, but fell short both times, and Dan obviously had issues with team dynamics. Both were set up for a course for redemption to prove they can grow, and have grown.
MY DESIGN, ANDRINI’S PANINI MACHINI: There’s so much the viewers don’t see with our design and how much engineering rigor went into the final product. The design focused on delivering an automated system that was elegant and ingenious at cooking a panini, where the user selects from 27 options. I’ll break up the design description into sections so people fully understand (and hopefully grasp) the gravity of what we were trying to accomplish.
The large table had four primary moving parts:

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  1. We mounted a rotating round table top on top of a round table, which was driven by an electric motor and controlled with an encoder (more on this later). The rotating table top could travel about 480 degrees so we could make a sandwich (bread, meat, cheese, bread), and then reset itself for the next sandwich.
  2. Three circles were cut out of the rotating round table top, where we installed three  rotating bins (built on lazy Susans and powered by mini electric motors and chain, each controlled by an encoder). Each platform had three bins that contained different combinations of bread, meat or cheese. Depending on the user’s choice of bread, meat and cheese, the platforms would rotate to the correct ingredient to create their sandwich.
  3. A deli slicer was modified and mounted horizontally inline with the table and was articulated up and down with an electric actuator. The blade travel (or height) was based on the ingredient it was cutting, tested by the team to identify the ideal slice width for the machine and taste.
  4. Finally, we converted an industrial oiler to be used with food products. We filled it with olive oil and used misters to lubricate the table to decrease friction as the ingredients moved. The oiler also sprayed the panini press as it rotated below the deli slicer.

The smaller table had three moving parts:

  1. The same concept as the large table was employed to create a rotating panini table, setting the speed to cook a panini just right.
  2. The panini presses had to automatically open and close. We used a passive cam design to close the panini press after all the ingredients were added from the large table and open after it finished cooking and ready to be delivered to the plate.
  3. Once the panini had been fully cooked, it would end up in front of a slide with a plate at the bottom. A pneumatic actuator with a spatula mounted at the end would extend as the panini press rotated in place and then retract, sliding the panini off the press, down the slide, and onto the plate.

That’s seven moving parts in a single system. The entire design was controlled with a lot of electrical hardware and several hundred lines of code (a job well done by Eric). Also, Alison made some awesome shirts that we all wore on the competition day.
THE ORIGINAL PLAN: Without any major objections to the overall concept, we planned for a three-day build and two days of testing as we knew how critical testing was to success. Throughout the build we were able to test all the components individually, but came across a couple of large hurdles that ate into our planned full system testing.
WHAT WENT WRONG: There were a couple of big things that slowed us down and ultimately led to reducing our food options, limiting our capability. Throughout the week we had some ordering issues, lead-time delays and integration/design problems. Most of those issues were easily mitigated, but still took up time as we resolved the problems.
The big issue that ended up really hurting us were the encoders we used to control the electric motors for the two spinning table tops and the three rotating bins on the large table. Spending countless hours troubleshooting the problem, we discovered two of the five encoders were faulty. Without having these installed and working correctly, there was no way for us to perform full-system testing, and we ultimately lost what time we had left to test.
BEHIND THE SCENES: At the end of the last build day, we still hadn’t finished. As team leader, I was able to make a case to the judges for extending our build time. Before I did this, I sought buy-in from my team. I had taken them this far and before I asked them to keep working for the cause (especially Joel and Alison), I wanted to know I had their support, and I did.
We ended up completing our design and loading it into the truck around 1 a.m. From there, Eric and I pulled an all-nighter, working on the code, finishing up some wiring and making sure things were as ready as they could be for the competition day.
COMPETITION DAY: We worked all morning long, conducting last-minute testing and fixing bugs and fine-tuning the system right up until the first person of the monstrous crowd of hungry people stepped up to our design. We hadn’t fully completed all the functionality of our design, but had enough functionality to cook a panini sandwich and a mighty-fine tasting one at that!
THE REAL DIRT: So what you didn’t see was that after they selected the team leaders, they told us two important pieces of information that changed the game:

  1. You had to pick from the remaining contestants first.
  2. Two of the three remaining contestants on the losing team would be eliminated. This changed the game and made being the runner-up (that’s me) an even larger disadvantage with two forced picks when selecting teams.

With Amy as the other team leader and a clear judge’s favorite at this point, I couldn’t just go with a simple design. If we both picked “simple” designs and succeeded, the odds said that I’d still lose. I had no choice BUT to go for broke with the hopes I’d find success swinging for the fences.
I knew the odds were against me. Picking Eric first was a no-brainer for me and I knew I’d have to rely on him heavily in this build. This also meant if the team didn’t succeed, he’d be the one to move on as he had to take on more of the responsibility of the design. We actually talked about this topic during our all-nighter and agreed that he’d make the case for going on (without my interference) because I asked a lot of him and he willingly accepted the challenge.
THE RESULTS: At the end of the day, I was happy walking away eliminated because I accomplished my goals. I showed that I could lead a disparate team and foster an overall good working environment. This challenge was exceptionally hard in that regard because I had Dan on my team, who had burned bridges with everyone on the team, as well as Joel and Alison, who both just found out they didn’t win the Wild Card. That we were able to come together, work as hard as we did (you have no idea) and get our design working is a testament to how great these people are and hopefully a reflection on my leadership.
With my chances of winning the competition off the table, the question for me is who do I help win it all. The answer’s pretty easy: it’s either Corey or Eric.
At this point I’m not biased toward either one, but will support either one depending on whose team I end up on.

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